Mark Zuckerberg is no longer the coolest kid in school, sitting in the back of the classroom with his hoodie on. Last year, the Facebook CEO cum Michael Cera lookalike told investors “coolness is done for us." Teens are leaving Facebook in droves for new friends like Instagram, Snapchat, and Twitter, with some analysts estimating at a rate of a million a year.
It might seem like no big deal to a service that boasts over 1 billion users and counting, but teens tend to be bellwethers of trends. Early adopters of Instagram, they saw that it was more than just a cool filter for your phone before the rest of us caught up.
David Ebersman, the former CFO for Facebook, argued the reason was that Facebook was no longer the hip hangout spot on the Internet for teenagers, and there’s a simple reason for that: It’s hard to look cool when you’re hanging out with Mom and Dad. The social media service is highly popular among their Gen X and Baby Boomer parents—who, as Bustle’s Krystin Arneson writes, “came to keep an eye on their kids, but stayed when they discovered that connecting with other adults was fun.” With widespread parental supervision on the service, many teenagers prefer the anonymity of Whisper, the iPhone-era's version of PostSecret.
However, some teens aren’t just bailing—they’re refusing to buy into Facebook in the first place. In a Huffington Post essay on the great Facebook exodus, Bianca Bosker notes that it was difficult to find teens that had signed up for the service to begin with. Of a group of high school girls Bosker spoke to, only one was on Facebook, and just as University College London professor Daniel Miller argued was the case amongst teens, the student seemed “embarrassed to even be associated with it.”
To see if these anecdotal experiences were true, I asked the coolest teenager I know—my younger brother, Eric, a 16-year-old attending high school in Ohio. Although a frequent gamer, Eric is a strong opponent of social media, which he claims is detrimental not only to interpersonal relationships but the experience of high school. “People don’t have to hang out with their friends,” he said. “They can just see what they’re doing. … I prefer actually talking to people. I would rather get their number than be friends on Facebook, where you have a 100 friends you never talk to. It’s a meaningless friendship.”
I asked him what he thought the word “friend” meant in the social media age, and he laughed. “I feel like friend is becoming very vague,” he argued. “It’s like the word love… You say love to a lot of people and things you don’t actually love. It’s more of a compliment now. I know you and I’ll talk to you. It’s like saying, ‘We can converse.’ It’s kind of like being polite.”
Because it’s so easy to accrue friends on Facebook, he believes social media has become another extension of the high school popularity contest. “The more friends you have, the cooler you seem,” Eric told me. “Nobody declines [your request].”
Eric explained that this was behind his decision not to sign up for the service, but that he’s not the only young person to opt out. “Newer kids don’t seem to like Facebook as much,” he claimed. “People around my age use Twitter and Instagram. It only seems like adults are on Facebook.” As Bosker and Miller found, teens are “[switching] over to Twitter because their parents don’t use Twitter as much,” and because of that, Eric argues that Facebook will eventually die off in a few generations. “Facebook is the new MySpace,” he told me. Eric also believes the process is cyclical: While his generation has adopted Twitter and Instagram to get away from their parents, his children will embrace new technologies to do the same.
I then asked him the pertinent question: If their kids all move over to Twitter, why don’t parents follow? Eric felt there was little incentive for parents to be on the site, as many of their friends wouldn’t be signed up for it. After all, Facebook is a place for friends, as its motto goes.
But he said it was about more than that. “A lot of people stay in their comfort zone. It’s easier for teens to switch over because they’re still in their exploratory phase, but for parents, they’re done exploring. They’re good.” For Eric, adapting to a new type of social media is like learning a new language—a feat studies have shown is easier for young people than it is adults. Eric argued there’s a psychology behind this phenomenon. “When you’re an adult, you don’t have as many peers, and you don’t have any reason to learn anymore,” he said. “When you’re a kid and you learn something new, you’re going to get those external rewards.”
This speaks to the essential nature of Facebook, which evaluates one’s ability to master the service with validation in the form of Likes. In some ways, he says this process has made the high school experience easier for those teenagers who do use the site to form relationships. “If you want a girlfriend, go get Facebook,” Eric claimed. “You can get one real fast.” I further pressed him as to why. “You can say whatever you want without real emotion, he responded. “You can say, ‘You’re attractive. I would like to get to know you.’ In real life, you’ll get all nervous.” But there’s a drawback to living your social life online—it means you’re less likely to be present to the one in front of you. Eric explained that groups of students will spend their entire lunch conversations tweeting each other. “People seem to be less and less social,” he said. “They’re only on their phones now.”
Eric feels that being able to mediate one’s high school experience (especially the awkward parts we might like to forget) through the safety of a screen is holding students back. “I think it’s all about learning how to get past awkward situations rather than using the Internet to get through it,” he claimed. Given the drawbacks of having social media in high school, I asked him whether he would recommend getting Facebook to an incoming freshman. “It depends what you’re trying to go for: If you want to party and get laid, yeah,” Eric said. “If you can see that high school is only a short part of your life, four years, and you have decades after that to learn and grow as an individual, no.”
Although Eric’s might seem like a minority opinion, viewpoints like his are increasingly common when it comes to Facebook, which may be tied to the experience of high school itself. While there can be a distinct pleasure in flipping through old yearbooks, those memories largely catalog the best versions of ourselves, the clubs we were in and what we looked like when we prepared for picture day. Imagine if every moment of those four years were permanently archived for you to scroll back through in horror? To paraphrase Socialnomics author Erik Qualman: What happens in Vegas lives forever on Facebook.
This is largely why Inc’s Dave Kepper feels that the youth social media movement will largely drift toward Snapchat, a peer-to-peer service that already boasts more messages every day than Facebook’s standalone messaging app. “Snapchat represents the growing trend of erasable media—ephemeral photos, videos and comments which are here one minute, gone the next,” Kepper writes. Cnet’s Jennifer Van Grove adds that apps like Snapchat are the “opposite of Facebook: simple, seemingly secret, and fun.” Van Grove writes, “Around schools, kids treat these apps like pot, enjoyed in low-lit corners, and all for the undeniable pleasure and temporary fulfillment of feeling cool.”
According to Frank N. Magid Associates, Facebook lost six percent of its teen market share in 2014—the previous year, 94 percent of teens were signed up for a Facebook account, but only 88 percent were active 12 months later. However, there’s a silver lining for Mark Zuckerberg as his company owns Instagram and WhatsApp, a popular messaging service. Whereas the company used to try to “clone the competition,” according to Bosker, Facebook has started acquiring its heirs. If teens are fickle and always looking to the next big thing, it’s smart to make sure you also own that property.
As Eric reminded me, “everything’s always changing on the Internet,” and the case of Facebook proves this to be true. In a way, that makes social media an ideal match for our teen years. If you have a hard time keeping up with the drama of Facebook, try being 16 again.