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☢️ Fallout in the war for teens and tweens
Gen Z wants decentralization, multiplicity, and digital diversity
This week we excerpt the writing of Mary Madden, a Cooney Center Senior Fellow and a long-time researcher of how teens live online. Her New_ Public Magazine article, “Gen Z refuses to be locked in,” is just in time for the massive revelations being unearthed about Facebook and young people. Read to the end for some bonus Gen Z content. Also, we’ve got an open thread coming this Tuesday. Ready your questions about the first issue of our magazine to get a free physical copy of our broadsheet mailed to your door!
📱 The future of Facebook and Instagram looks bleak without teens
🥱 Kids see through the desperation and want to use social their own way
🧵 Open thread Tuesday: Get your questions ready!
Just when you thought that the Wall Street Journal’s The Facebook Files might be slowing down, we saw Facebook pause their “Instagram Kids” plans, release internal slides to challenge the Journal’s reporting, and send Antigone Davis, their global head of safety, to testify before the Senate. Now a Facebook whistleblower is scheduled to testify and appear on 60 Minutes.
Meanwhile, WSJ continued their series with another barn-burner about Facebook’s strategy for acquiring teen and tween users. For some context, here’s a 2020 chart from Pew Research Center that shows kids clearly do not prefer Facebook and Instagram:
Facebook clearly views this as an existential problem: “Our ultimate goal is messaging primacy with U.S. tweens, which may also lead to winning with teens,” reads one of the documents given to the WSJ. What does “winning with teens” look like? Presumably, it means having them become adults who regularly use Facebook. Another Pew chart from a different survey shows Facebook’s massive, but not growing, adult user base in the US:
But we’ve learned recently that this conversion process, where tweens and teens learn the patterns and expectations of social media and become heavy users of the big platforms, is not inevitable. In fact, researcher Mary Madden, in her article for our first issue of New_ Public Magazine, shows that kids these days have a lot of agency, which they wield in creative and unexpected ways.
Maybe, just maybe, the reason that many tweens and teens aren’t using these platforms isn’t just because it’s for the olds, as Facebook’s internal research suggests, but also because they are more perceptive about the effects of contemporary social media than we give them credit for. Facebook only knew internally that Instagram was potentially harmful to teenage girls because teenage girls told them it was. “Teens blame Instagram for increases in the rate of anxiety and depression,” said one of the leaked slides. “This reaction was unprompted and consistent across all groups.”
Teens are watching Inside too, and they are not exempt from cringey humor about a life spent online. They’re not just opting out—many of the kids on these platforms are participating in unexpected, unintended ways that baffle Senators. Again and again, tweens and teens told Mary that they’re looking for different ways to use social media, preferring, as she put it, “decentralization, multiplicity, and digital diversity" when socializing online. And what’s more punk—or decentralized—than teens using social media in unauthorized ways that suit their purposes?
Read on for a healthy excerpt from Mary’s piece, along with some b-b-b-b-BONUS-s-s materials.
Gen Z refuses to be locked in
How teens invent workarounds against the worst parts of centralized tech
Editor’s note: Names of interviewees have been changed.
After creating an elaborate but ultimately unsuccessful slide presentation to convince her parents that she would be a responsible user of Snapchat, 14-year-old Arwen in Virginia recently decided she no longer really cared about being on the platform. She had found a mix of other apps to fulfill her needs: Apple iMessage and FaceTime to stay connected to her close friends, TikTok to enjoy cultural content (“enemies to lovers” tropes are her favorite), and YouTube to learn to play guitar. She realized, she told me, that it’s better to delay creating a more public presence on the internet.
Part of the work of being a young person in 2021 means making daily decisions about how to engage on various platforms—and at times, actively messing with the larger structural forces of an industry that desperately wants to expand its foothold in their lives. From Google’s pervasive presence in schools and entertainment, Amazon’s foothold in e-commerce and cloud computing, to Facebook’s race to be the next WeChat, Big Tech’s push to acquire and consolidate data, and eyeballs, and pocketbooks has never been stronger. And at no time is the pressure and expectation to be extremely online more intense than during adolescence. Pandemic-related lockdowns have only amplified that reality, and it doesn’t appear to be changing anytime soon.
Wanting to understand how young people are navigating social media amid Big Tech’s ongoing digital land grab, I reached out to a handful of teens from across the United States to talk over the last few weeks of summer. With my colleagues Monica Bulger and Kiley Sobel, I also conducted online focus group interviews with fifty tweens and teens as part of the Joan Ganz Cooney Center’s By/With/For Youth Project last fall. Across all of these conversations, the themes of decentralization, multiplicity, and digital diversity kept reappearing in the way youth described their preferred ways of socializing online. Far from accepting the kind of centralized vision of interaction that would be required to sustain the “metaverse” (the tech futurist fixation of the moment), youth are busy segmenting and compartmentalizing their social engagement across different platforms according to their own needs. They recognize both their vulnerability to an industry determined to monetize them, and their power to push back.
As with many cycles of technology, these practices aren’t entirely new; when I was studying youth and technology at the Pew Research Center, we wrote about the fluid nature of teens’ online identities and social lives as early as 2001. At the time, our team found that teens were leveraging the as-of-then entirely new affordances of digital media to experiment with multiple personas and layers of privacy and publicity in how they socialized online. It’s hard to overstate how radical this was at that moment; in the pre-internet world, those who assumed alternate identities or pseudonyms were seen as suspicious. But much of the exuberance for the freedoms of the early web was rooted in the ability to “try on” different identities. For the teens we interviewed, simply maintaining multiple email and instant messaging accounts was an early form of social decentralization that gave them the ability to be someone else—or many someone elses—online.
By 2013, our research at Pew found a new kind of fragmentation and decentralization happening; after several years of rapid adoption and fervent engagement by youth, many teens we spoke with were expressing waning enthusiasm for Facebook. They disliked the increasing number of adults on the site, got annoyed when their Facebook friends were sharing inane details, and were drained by the “drama” that they described as happening frequently on the site. The stress of needing to manage a more public reputation on Facebook also contributed to their lack of enthusiasm about sharing content. Nevertheless, even as Instagram and Snapchat became preferred platforms for youth, teens felt they still needed to maintain some presence on Facebook in order to keep up with news and updates from their other networks.
The practices of today’s youth are potentially more seismic. Contrary to the goals of Big Tech’s investments, young people are shifting their time, content, and data away from mainstream social apps to a much more fragmented and less public kaleidoscope of communications and communities. More than previous generations, young people are now explicitly and thoughtfully controlling their boundaries of in-groups and out-groups.
To add to Mary’s incredible research, we’ve curated some ✨ additional reading ✨ about how Gen Z is breaking our brains with their 🔥🔥🔥 innovations in how to live both URL and IRL.
🟡 Mary’s article references this fascinating piece in Points about Gen Z TikTok. I love the way they put this: “By sharing experiences, asking questions, and crowdsourcing answers, teens are developing an algorithmic folklore while discerning the potential motivations behind TikTok’s software engineering.”
🔴 If you missed The Verge’s excellent series Next Gen this summer, there’s a lot of great writing to explore on subjects that are rarely taken seriously, including fanfiction and language-learning apps.
🟢 This recent newsletter from gen yeet goes deep on what it really means to be a young person who quits the apps. “I think of social media as an ongoing party held at my apartment,” writes author Terry Nguyen. “I can return to my room, but still hear its echoes through the thin walls, the locked door. I can also leave, before eventually returning home to hear what I’ve been missing out on, night after night. Most people never leave.”
🔵 Finally, we want to share some of Mary’s research. This recent report is titled “The Missing Middle: Reimagining a Future for Tweens, Teens, and Public Media.” Sixty years ago, similar research on television’s potential eventually inspired children’s programming like Sesame Street and Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.
This Tuesday we’ll be sending out an open thread around noon on the East Coast to talk about the first issue of New_ Public Magazine and decentralization in general. It’s also an opportunity to get a free copy of our printed broadsheet! The first 25 readers to ask a question for one of our magazine writers to answer will be mailed a copy of the broadsheet, anywhere in the world (whether your question is answered promptly or not).
Thanks for coming out and meeting us at Unfinished Live! We had a blast actually being in physical proximity to each other and many of you — what a rush! If you missed our panel at Unfinished Live, you can now watch the whole thing here, and the rest of the programming here. Thanks again to our amazing speakers: Claire Evans, Amelia Winger-Bearskin, and Rich Benjamin.
Deleting our Finstas,
Design and photos by Josh. Charts by Pew. Screenshot courtesy of Unfinished.
New_ Public is a partnership between the Center for Media Engagement at the University of Texas, Austin, and the National Conference on Citizenship, and was incubated by New America.