Facebook is a teenage wasteland. At least that’s what various studies and market research reports would like us to believe. Last week, Facebook was losing out to YouTube with most teenagers said to prefer the video-streaming site over the former. This week, we are hearing that Facebook is losing teens to messaging apps such as WhatsApp and WeChat. The main reason cited for the shift is that youngsters are shying away from sharing and posting on Facebook due to fear of posts being seen and commented on by unwanted users, relatives parents, and other ‘stalkers’.

Yes, teens are leaving Facebook, but the situation is not as dire as these recent reports might suggest. The company admitted “a decrease in (teenage) daily users (in Q3), especially younger teens,” Facebook CFO David Ebersman said during the Q3 earnings call in October.

So why are Facebook’s missing teens such a big problem? It’s because this is the very demographic that has driven Facebook’s growth. The teen consumer spending market makes up more than $200 billion in the US alone and there’s a huge untapped audience in markets where Facebook hasn’t taken off. So it’s no surprise that latching on its youth audience is of significant interest to Facebook, its investors and other companies in the same space.

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Are teens hiding in the shadows?

In reality, on a daily metric, Facebook may be losing out on chunks of teenagers, but as monthly users go the website is as healthy as ever. Ebersman said that teens are still checking in with Facebook each month at a steady rate that’s not impacted by the decline in daily usage. The overall usage among quarter over quarter has remained steady as well, the Wall Street Journal reported him as saying.

Analysts agree with Ebersman. J.P. Morgan analyst Doug Anmuth told CNN that any decline in usage is restricted to a very small, specific group, even more niche than the niche category of teenagers. “We think the lower daily usage is currently limited to a small portion of younger teens, likely ages 13-15, that may be using additional services such as Facebook-owned Instagram, Snapchat, and WhatsApp,” Anmuth said.

One thing bandied about in favour of messaging apps is that they are intrinsically mobile and know the space better than Facebook. Facebook’s own struggle with getting a bug-free Android app experience is well known, and possibly adds to this growing opinion base. But the company still has shown great growth in terms of mobile ad revenue, showing that mobile is not all lost on it. Mobile ads now account for 49 per cent of all Facebook ad revenue, up eight per cent from Q2, which is impressive growth considering mobile ads began only in 2012. This figure suggests that Facebook's still trying to cope with the mobile explosion and any lost ground is due to it competing against so many different rivals.

Forget apps like WhatsApp, which are competitors to Facebook, to a certain extent. But even Facebook-owned Instagram is seeing more daily teen users. Altimeter Group principal analyst Brian Solis believes this is due to conditions Facebook itself created. People under 13 cannot join the social network, but have access to Instagram and the likes, which have no age restriction. Solis told CNET, “Teenagers use (Instagram) to share pictures of themselves…the more you share, the greater the reaction, and the more you push outside comfort zones, the more people react. Teens recognized Instagram as a social network before anyone else. Everyone else treated it as a camera app.

Three simple steps

Instagram video is a hit with the teenage audience

Danah Boyd, a Microsoft senior researcher who studies how youngsters use social media, pointed out that the fragmented nature of messaging apps and the slew of social networks is driving teens to try out more newer services than ever before. “Rather than all flocking en masse to a different site, they're fragmenting across apps and engaging with their friends using a wide array of different tools…. A new one pops up each week. What's exciting to me is that I'm seeing teenagers experiment,” she told CNET.

This would definitely be bad reading for Facebook, except the company has already started fighting the loss of the teenage audience. Experiments have already begun in the form of news articles appearing more prominently, more emphasis on visuals and of course, changes to the News Feed for easier navigation. Facebook has also introduced Twitter favourites such as following users and hashtags. Recent changes to its privacy policy make sure even status updates of minors can be made public, thus giving that user base an attractive reason to use Facebook.

The company is also revamping its mobile apps and the Home launcher for Android is one such effort. So while at the moment, teenagers are flocking to Facebook’s competitors, it would be premature to suggest that Facebook is no longer hot with teens. There’s quite a lot of work going on to buck the negative trend. Of course, over the course of the next quarter and then going forward, we will see more details emerge about the usage patterns of teens on Facebook. And only then will we know whether the exodus is permanent or just a case of youth being bored.

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