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01.15.14

Report: Facebook’s Teens Are “Leaving By the Millions"

A recent report made the claim that Facebook’s teens are dropping like flies, down 25% since 2011. Ten years old, does this spell doom for Facebook?

A report hit the web Wednesday claiming Facebook, now in its tenth year, is losing its teens at terrifyingly high rates.

“Three years ago, we published a report on 2011 Facebook Demographics & Statistics that covered gender, location, education, and more (US only),” DJ Saul writes at the iStrategyLabs, the website of a digital agency with clients that range from ESPN to Pinkberry. “Recently we dove into Facebook’s Social Advertising platform to get a refreshed snapshot of the same data points to see what exactly has happened over time and to look at the numbers behind many recent claims: teenagers are leaving by the millions. Enjoy!”

Those numbers, which are presented in a chart comparing users from January 2011 and January 2014, show that the amount of teens on Facebook aged 13-17 has fallen 25.3%. Those in high school over the same period fell a whopping 58.9%. College students fared no better, with a 59.1% decrease over the same period.

Like all "reports," it's important to keep in mind the source of data. These aren't official Facebook numbers—just those pulled form the advertising platform on the site. And some commenters on the report are questioning its validity, like this one: "As a fellow researcher in this area, it’s “generalized” reports like this that mislead audiences who do not know to always question the sample and where the data is coming from."

So. Doom for Facebook? Doubtful. But I called them up to find out—and hopefully get some of their own numbers that might dispel the claim.

“We have no new data to share at this time,” a Facebook spokesperson told me when reached Wednesday afternoon and presented with the numbers in question. “We remain focused on delivering an engaging product experience to all of our users, including teens.”

“We remain focused on delivering an engaging product experience to all of our users, including teens.”

So basically, no numbers.

But the company has in the past made reference to the teen numbers, especially after Zuck denied that Facebook usage was slipping among teens in July.

On the company’s Q3 earnings call in October (PDF), Facebook CFO David Ebersman confirmed that daily numbers were indeed falling among younger teens, but mentioned its a tough metric to track due to unreliable age data among kids who may or may not be allowed to use Facebook (mom’s rules!):

I want to say a few words about youth engagement on Facebook. As we’ve said previously, this is a hard issue for us to measure because self-reported age data is unreliable for younger users. So we’ve developed other analytical methods to help us estimate usage by age. Our best analysis on youth engagement in the U.S. reveals that usage of Facebook among U.S. teens overall was stable from Q2 to Q3. But we did see a decrease in daily users specifically among younger teens. We won’t typically call out such granular data especially when it’s of questionable statistical significance given the lack of precision of our age estimates for younger users. But we wanted to share this with you now since we get a lot of questions about teens.

Then in December, speaking with All Things D’s Mike Isaac, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg denied having much a problem at all.

So I think the reaction to that comment has been blown out of proportion. As we said on the earnings call, overall U.S. teen usage of Facebook remains stable. The vast majority of U.S. teens are on Facebook. And the majority of U.S. teens use Facebook almost every day.

She continued:

One of the challenges we face right now is that we’re a decade old. That means that we’re not the newest. And often, particularly in our space, newer things are shinier and cooler. And what Mark [Zuckerberg] has said and what we all believe is that we’re not trying to be the coolest. And we’re not trying to be the newest. We’re trying to be the most useful. I think if you look at the way teenagers continue to use Facebook, we are useful to them.

So yeah, maybe Facebook is seeing less daily usage amongst the younger set of users (some of whom might be under the age of 13—and therefore aren’t properly tracked). Or maybe they aren’t.

But what’s clear from Facebook’s stance these past few months regarding those fickle teens is thus: they’ve got the teens signed up. Sure, they may be engaging less and less on a daily basis, but as long as Facebook builds a solid product, nobody’s going to leave for good.

Hot young upstarts like Snapchat, meanwhile, have a lot more to prove on the long term. And by focusing on products that are useful, and not just the “coolest,” Facebook is betting on the long game.

At least that’s what they hope.

But then President Obama, having lunch with a bunch of 20-somethings in Washington, D.C. on Tuesday, was overheard throwing a dash of cold water on all of us: “It seems like they don’t use Facebook anymore.”

Who “they” are, of course, is always up for debate.

It’s “a question of high hermeneutic importance.”