Facebook loses the cool factor with bored teens

Kids dont want to use mom and dad's social network

Somewhere along the way, Facebook apparently became your father's social network.

That's the problem Facebook executives face today. During the company's quarterly earnings call on Wednesday, David Ebersman, Facebook's chief financial officer, reported that the social network is struggling to keep teenagers' attention.

"We did see a decrease in [teenage] daily users [during the quarter], especially younger teens," said Ebersman, who went on to call the network's teen user base "stable."

This isn't a new problem, but it does appear to be getting worse for Facebook, which originally was launched to serve college students.

With 1.2 billion monthly active users and 874 million mobile monthly active users, Facebook has been doing well with users who have more grey hair and wrinkle cream than Justin Bieber hair and Clearasil.

As far back as 2009, a study released by iStrategyLabs showed that U.S. high school and college-age users were on the decline even as its popularity among the 55-and-older crowd was booming. In fact, the number of older Facebook users showed staggering growth in the first half of 2009 -- up 513.7%.

Another report in 2009 -- this one from Hitwise Pty. -- showed that people who got their own Facebook page were likely closer to getting their first copy of AARP than to hitting the legal drinking age.

Now, even Facebook says there's a loss of younger users.

To cater to a younger demographic, Facebook this month loosened its privacy rules for teenager users. Before the change, Facebook users between the ages of 13 and 17 were only able to share status updates, pictures and videos with their online friends or friends of friends. With the new policy, teenage users now may opt to open up their accounts and make their posts public.

"As a standalone situation, this could be bad for Facebook," said Brian Blau, an analyst with Gartner Inc. "If nothing else changes and a whole generation of teens grow up and use Facebook less, then clearly that will be an engagement problem."

However, Blau was quick to note that Facebook, which is easily the largest social network in the world, has a history of innovation and product development.

"Some went well and some didn't, but we have to assume that over time Facebook will bring on new product and brands that would be attractive to these different demographic groups," he added.

Blau also isn't surprised that Facebook is having a hard time attracting young users. After all, the average smartphone user tries out a new app about five times a month, he said.

"Teens tend to not want to hang out in the same places as their parents, as they want to establish themselves and their own lives," he added. "I would say it's a real combination of losing interest, as well interest in other apps, combined with a healthy dose of not wanting to be too close to their parents."

So where are young teens going online if not to Facebook?

Sites, like Instagram, which is owned by Facebook, Snapchat and WeChat are gaining a following among younger users who want to communicate, follow their favorite celebrities and sports stars and share images.

Rob Enderle, an analyst with the Enderle Group, said Facebook needs to get ahead of this issue now before it gets worse.

"It's a very big problem," he added. "New trends like social networking are largely driven by youth. If they abandon the technology and move on, Facebook bleeds growth potential and it is far more likely to drop into decline."

However, Dan Olds, an analyst with The Gabriel Consulting Group, said he doesn't see this as a big worry for Facebook, since teenagers are just looking around and trying out new apps and new networks.

"I don't think that kids are losing interest in social networking at all," he said. "It's more that they might be using different vehicles, like Instagram, which is owned by Facebook. Teens were the early adopters with Facebook and it's natural that some will use other platforms when they suddenly see mom, dad, and their old Aunt Milly start friending them on Facebook. When the adults arrive, it definitely kills the 'cool factor' for at least some teens."

The fact that teenagers are increasingly using Instagram means that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg made a pretty savvy move when the company bought the start-up last year.

"I think Facebook needs to make sure that at least one of their brands, like Instagram or whatever, appeals to the youngest crowd," said Olds. "But not all of their brands need to do that."

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at  @sgaudin, on Google+ or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed . Her email address is sgaudin@computerworld.com.

See more by Sharon Gaudin on Computerworld.com.

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