Inside Facebook’s struggle to keep young people

A Facebook researcher shared alarming statistics earlier this year with colleagues.
The number of teens using Facebook in the US has fallen by 13 percent since 2019, and is expected to fall 45 percent in the next two-years. This will lead to a decline in daily users in America's most lucrative ad markets. The number of young adults between 20 and 30 years old was expected to drop by 4 percent in the same period. Even worse, the older a user is, the less they engage with the app on an average basis. It was obvious: Facebook was losing popularity with younger generations quickly.

In an internal memo, the researcher stated that the aging up issue was real. The researcher predicted that if Facebook was to see a decline in its young users, it would be more severe than the company had anticipated.

The ageing up issue is real

These findings are consistent with other internal documents as well as conversations with former and current employees. They show that Facebook views its aging userbase as a serious threat to its long-term business health and that it is trying to fix the problem, with little evidence that its strategy will succeed. The 17-year-old social media network could lose its entire user base if it does not change course. While Instagram is still very popular among teens, Facebook's data shows that they are beginning to engage less with the app.

These internal documents are part disclosures to the Securities and Exchange Commission. They were provided to Congress in redacted format by Frances Haugen's legal counsel. Frances Haugen is an ex-Facebook employee who became a prominent whistleblower. The redacted versions were obtained by Congress by a consortium of news agencies, including The Verge. Some documents were used as the basis of earlier reporting in The Wall Street Journal.

Facebook's struggle to attract younger users has been ongoing since 2012, when it was first reported. According to documents, the problem is worsening. The stakes are very high. It was originally created as a social networking site for college students. However, employees predict that the app's growing user base of nearly 2 billion users per day will cause it to be even more alienating. This could lead to future generations being cut off and limit future growth.

This is why the company has been so keen to attract young people to its main app and to Instagram. It even created dedicated youth teams to address their needs. It launched a separate Messenger app for children in 2017. Plans for an Instagram version for kids were scrapped by lawmakers in 2017.

A rising number of social networks for young people has also been growing in popularity, something Facebook has closely followed with its own research. Employees revealed that teens spend 23x as much time on TikTok and Instagram than they do on Instagram, and that Snapchat is the most popular method for communicating with their best friends.

Our products are still popular among teens, but we face stiff competition from the likes Snapchat and TikTok," Joe Osborne, a Facebook spokesperson said to answer questions about the documents mentioned in this story. Every social media company wants teens to use its services. We are no different.

Numbers falling

In March, Chris Cox was presented by a group of data scientists from Facebook with heath scorecards on Instagram and Facebook usage among young adults and teens. While Instagram was strong among young people, it was losing engagement in key markets like the US, Australia and Japan. The user base of Facebook was getting older rapidly.

There are many negative associations that Facebook has with other people

According to the presentation, Facebook is primarily a place for young adults in their 40s and 50s. According to the presentation, young adults see content as dull, misleading, and even negative. Many young adults view content as boring, misleading, and negative.

Cox's March presentation showed that teen acquisition in the US is still low and declining further. The company continued to see lower engagement levels for teens who are already using Facebook. However, messages sent by older users were flat.

One slide stated that a worrying trend was the decrease in time spent on Facebook by young Americans in the US since the last coronavirus pandemic, which saw usage spike across the board. Another slide discussed the current engagement gap between older and younger users. It stated that Americans over 30 spent on average 24 minutes more per day on Facebook than those under 30.

The average age of users will continue to rise, which could disengage younger users.

Facebook internal measures its user base against estimates of the population from specific countries by the United Nations. If the number of monthly users for a given age bracket is equal to the estimated population, then the social network is fully saturated. Cox was informed by the presentation that Facebook's average age has increased in proportion to the average age of the population over time. This trend will continue, and the average age of [Facebook apps] users will continue to rise, possibly disengaging younger people even more.

Instagram was doing well with young people. It had full saturation in the US and France as well as Japan and Australia. There was still reason to be concerned. The researchers found that teens posting had fallen 13 percent since 2020. This is the most alarming trend. They also noted that teens are using TikTok more frequently, which means that they are likely losing their total time.

Sprint for product

According to internal documents, Facebook and Instagram employees have been working for the past year on a range of products that are targeted at teens and young adults in an effort to address the crisis. They also know that it will be a difficult battle for both platforms.

We need to be ahead with a brand tax

According to a November 2020 strategy document, young adults believe Facebook should not be a place for rants or charged opinions. This perception is further tarnished by negative media coverage, which, according to the November 2020 strategy document, amounts to a brand tax that we must avoid.

Employees identified two areas of concern to help address the risk that young adults are not using Facebook as much over time. This allowed us to build credibility and gain trust to expand into areas such as mental health products. They created a multi-year plan that will allow young adults to connect to mentors and have meaningful conversations about local causes with others.

One of the planned features was asking young people to update and expand their friend networks. This is because many of their connections are dormant, and they struggle to get any value out them after having built up hundreds over the years. The team began to modify the News Feed algorithm for young adults. They hoped to test the changes as soon as possible to make it more relevant to them.

Employees also discussed the possibility of allowing young people to create different profiles that are specific for certain Facebook groups. Spotlight, a visual version of Facebook's News Feed, was discussed. Mood feeds were also suggested to increase engagement and visitation.

According to the documents, Facebook is working on a new version of Facebook Groups called Groups+. This is part of its youth push. It was slated to start testing in November and is expected to be released in December. This is intended to allow people to upload resumes and search for career advice or jobs in a specialized feed.

Joe Osborne, Facebook spokesperson said that they continue to explore new products and experiences. However, these efforts have either evolved or never left exploration.

Seven percent of teens have reported bullying via Instagram.

Instagram has focused a lot of its product development on young people in recent years to reduce bullying and social comparisons. An earlier presentation stated that only 7 percent of teens reported experiencing bullying via Instagram, and that 40% of bullying occurred in private messages. Some of the other internal research documents that The Wall Street Journal previously reported on show that teens told The Wall Street Journal they have experienced negative social comparisons and depression as a result of using Instagram.

Sixty-one per cent of Instagram's new teen accounts choose to make their profiles public upon initial setup. The presentation also stated that Instagram employees want to tweak their products to encourage young users to create private accounts. These documents reveal that private, secondary finsta accounts are also growing in popularity, particularly among Instagram's youngest users. This is a behavior that employees want encourage to keep young people engaged.

According to company researchers, teens want to be able to connect with their friends but not share their thoughts with everyone. They want to be able to share easily with only the people they trust, so they feel validated, seen and accepted.

Instagram is committed to attracting young people and keeping them interested. According to The New York Times, Adam Mosseri (chief of Instagram) told employees in May that Instagram's goal was to be a place where young people can define themselves and their future.

An uncertain future

According to Michael Sayman (a 25-year old former product manager for youth products, who joined Facebook in 2014 at the age of 17, losing young people was not always a major concern for the blue Facebook app. Social apps have become more visual with the advent of smartphones with selfie cameras. Facebook, however, remained primarily focused on text messages.

Snapchat's Copy Stories feature, which reduces the pressure to share daily snippets from their lives and makes them disappear, has helped Instagram users younger than 18 keep up with the trend. It also encourages the creation of multiple accounts. However, Facebook's popularity among young people has been steadily declining. He said that the company understood the importance of Sayman's departure in 2017. It's a whole generation.

Teens are now more inclined to play immersive social games like Fortnite and Saymans employer, Roblox. These virtual worlds, which have custom avatars, are a great option for young people who don't want people to judge their appearances or the places they live in. These virtual worlds can be as entertaining as traditional social media, even though it can sometimes feel like a performance. Facebook plans to change its corporate name to emphasize the metaverse. This could partially be an attempt to appeal to younger people.

Facebook isn't sure yet if its plans for attracting young people to Facebook are sufficient. Cox was bluntly told in March's presentation that it was too early to evaluate the effectiveness of the current set of big bets on Instagram for teens and young adults, or whether they are adequate given the current competitive environment.