Here’s how a real teenager uses, and doesn’t use, social media


There’s a whole category of social-science fallacy that revolves around extrapolating from one or two cases, so we should be careful not to read too much into a recent Medium post by 19-year-old Andrew Watts about how he and his friends use various social-media platforms. That said, however, it’s still fascinating to look at how differently his age group approaches some of the services we older folks take for granted.

Probably the least surprising point in Watts’ post is that teens have virtually no interest in using Facebook whatsoever — but almost all of them still have an account anyway, because it’s the only way to keep in touch with certain people. He describes it as:

This fits with other descriptions of how younger users approach Facebook, including a number who have described the social network to me as filling the same kind of annoying niche as email does for many older users: It’s something they have to use, but they take no joy in doing so. Gigaom writer Eliza Kern once described it as being like the cable company.

Instagram is number one

What I found interesting about the Facebook section, however, is that Watts and his friends still use the site, but only parts of it — so they use Messenger because everyone has it, and they use Groups because they are easier to scan quickly and don’t get all screwed up by the Facebook algorithm the way the main newsfeed does. And Facebook is kind of identity central when it comes to figuring out who someone is:

Facebook generic

When it comes to services they love, Instagram is the top of the list, and this fits with my own experience interviewing teenagers, including friends of my daughters. Anyone who thinks that Instagram is just about sharing crappy filtered photos is missing the boat, I think — it is a full-fledged social network, with people carrying on conversations in the comments and using hashtags to find content. And Watts says part of what his friends like is that the network feels more intimate than Facebook:

Snapchat and Tumblr

A close second on the list when it comes to most-used social app is Snapchat, which recently closed a financing round that values the company at a staggering $10 billion. Watts reinforces the argument I and others have made about the value of “ephemeral” services like Snapchat when he says that one of the reasons he and his friends use it so much is that there is a lot less social pressure around their content:

Ephemeral latte art in the shape of the Snapchat logo. Disappears as soon as the first sip is taken.

Ephemeral latte art in the shape of the Snapchat logo. Disappears as soon as the first sip is taken.

One service that doesn’t get a lot of attention from outside the teenaged set — especially since it was acquired by Yahoo, which for many industry-watchers is the same as falling off the face of the earth — is Tumblr. Watts says the platform is popular with many of his friends because it allows for the posting and sharing of all kinds of content, without tying that content to someone’s real identity.

I can confirm that the private nature of Tumblr is a big part of the reason why one of my twenty-something daughters is addicted to it, more than any other social service including Snapchat. For her, any content she consumes — including TV shows, movies, books, etc. — comes to her through her Tumblr dashboard, because the community of friends that she has made there is talking about it and sharing it.

Yik Yak and Twitter

Interestingly, Twitter seems to be just as much of a niche network in Watts’ circle as it is everywhere else: he says that “a lot of us simply do not understand the point of Twitter” and that apart from a small group of people at every school who “use it very religiously,” almost no one is on the platform (in my house, our younger daughter uses it a lot — and in fact runs several accounts — and the older one pays almost no attention to it).


The other social network that is popular and growing in Watts’ network of friends is Yik Yak, which is a location-based sharing platform that our Carmel DeAmicis has written about a number of times. Watts says that part of the appeal with Yik Yak is also the anonymity and lack of social pressure that comes with networks that are tied more closely to someone’s real-world identity. Yik Yak is addictive, he says:

Whether Watts’ experiences or those of his friends can be extrapolated to a worldwide market is debatable — he is 19 and a student at the University of Texas in Austin, so not all of his behavior is going to apply to younger or non-university users. But still, there is plenty of meat in his descriptions for anyone interested in social media and its evolution. If I worked at Twitter or Facebook I would make it required reading.

Note: Please see the follow-up to this post, based on some criticisms from sociologist danah boyd.


Susan Emerick

I can attest that this post describes my teenage daughter’s + nieces and nephews usage habits with 95% accuracy – except for YikYak. It’s been handy to have a this personal incubator, like a focus group only I don’t ask questions typically – I observe and monitor to understand their consumption habits which then form user experience preferences + establish functionality expectations that transcend personal and work applications. This has been great for me as a digital & social marketing professional.


I have 2 daughters…1 (14 &16) and this describes my observations of their social media use to a tee. The one point I would make is that, I read your posting and categorize the users of social media based on an age demo, (ie Old people use email, mid people use Facebook and young people use Instagram)…but I think there is a gender distinction to be made as well. I believe Instagram has a higher proportion of use by Female vs Male. Ask around…I am curious to see if it plays out this way in your universe.


Generation X’s don’t use any of these crappy services at all. We’ve avoided them all together and went on to News Aggregators and multi-instant messengers on Tablets and Phablets.

Dan Neuman

One problem not mentioned with Facebook, which I read elsewhere, is that parents are on it. How do you share with everyone at school (even if they aren’t your friend), without your parents seeing it? Parents don’t see the value of the other services, so those are safe, for now.

Keith Hawn

“Tumblr is where you are your true self…due to the lack of identity on the site, you can really be who you want to be…”

My head just exploded.

Patrick Baek 

Do you have Tumblr account? Are you an active user on Pinterest?

Keith Hawn

You missed my point Patrick. I’m not commenting about the sites, but the nonsequitor in the quoted phrase.


My 16 + 18 year old sisters all maintain a facebook account, but more as a phone book. Instagram is where everything is happening. Even my own friends (late 20s) are far more engaged on Instagram. Most surprising to me is that my sisters and my friends older than me have completely embraced Snapchat. Facebook is far from dead, but brands who aren’t using other channels extensively are missing the boat.

Nikohl Vandel

I find my daughter, age 15, us her social media much like her parents. Just like we use a hybrid of social media forms, she does as well. She’s into all the hot things, yet mostly dwells within mainstream offerings in her small town reality. I dread the day that changes.

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