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Living In a Digital World- August

The August edition of Generation Head of Digital Martin Doyle’s monthly column Living in a Digital World. Originally published in ToyWorld, August 2016

When I was 13 years old, my parents announced that we would be spending Easter taking a family trip to the Isle of Man. I was filled with dread: what could possibly be of interest to me on this desolate island in the middle of March? What would I talk to my ancient parents about? Most importantly, how would I show my face back at school if someone found out? Somehow, I wriggled my way out of it and spent that particular school holiday doing far more exciting things with my ‘actual friends’. Of course, nowadays I would jump at the chance to spend more time with my family, but back then it was probably the most embarrassing situation I could possibly have imagined.

Fast forward to the Digital present, and have things changed at all? We hear reports of youngsters deserting Facebook in their droves to avoid their adventures being spied on by parents, or even grandparents, who sign up as late adopters. It’s hardly surprising – with everyone remembering their own childhood angst, a tabloid writer doesn’t need too many facts to propose this desertion. But is it really true that Facebook is now a no-go zone for young people – and if so, what does that mean for the future of their userbase and ad revenue?

I’ll start by pointing out that the pre-teen demographic was never the one that Mark Zuckerberg set out to cater for when he set up the blue giant 12 years ago. But success amongst college students and young adults made this an aspirational place to be, and under 13s followed. That was against the rules of course, but what could be cooler than that?

Let’s look at the hard facts. TGI data tells us that the number of 7-10 year olds using Facebook increased progressively until 2011, when 17% were regularly logging in. A relative plateau followed before the number plummeted: now only 6.3% of 7-10 year olds are using Facebook. The 11-14 age group has fallen even more dramatically – from 60% in 2014 to 23% in 2015. So statistically there are fewer using the service. Yet using the same research, Facebook does remain the most popular social network.

Where have these kids gone? The likely answer will not come as a shock to regular readers of Living in a Digital world. For adults, Facebook remains number one but there are always new networks, apps and properties being developed – the flavour of the month taking up a fashion-conscious youngster’s screen time: just look at the growth of Instagram, Snapchat, PopJam or the very recent Pokémon Go! YouTube now boasts usage of up to 4 in 5 kids, rising significantly amongst secondary schoolers. There may also be something in the algorithms, with YouTube’s ‘up next’ content conveyer belt increasingly sophisticated, encouraging youngsters to hang around longer and watch more content rather than browse various social networks.

So what of the ad revenue? For me, there are three reasons that I don’t think Mr Zuckerberg is losing too much sleep over the dip in his younger demographic numbers.

Firstly, Facebook has never been the right environment to reach kids for an advertiser. It is a much more appropriate and effective platform for reaching Parents and giftgivers. Add to that the stringent protection offered by US COPPA regulations and its forthcoming EU GDPR counterpart, and it’s no wonder that Zuck and his team maintain their stance of ‘over 13s only’.

Secondly, that massive drop off in kids hasn’t been replicated in the adult space, notably the 15-24 age group. This demographic using Facebook has barely moved; it’s the same as it was in 2012 – around two thirds. Yet they have aged too – so there must be new, younger users coming in from somewhere.

Finally, a matter of opinion: 35% of 7-10s think that Facebook is a ‘cool’ brand, 40% are indifferent (teenagers before their time…) but only 18% see it as ‘uncool’.  Those who think it cool far outnumber its actual users in that demographic. I can only speak for myself, but as I grew up and my life outside of work became more squeezed, my personal online repertoire consolidated, became less exploratory and more mature. Given that Facebook’s userbase continues to grow, one could hypothesise that our current youngsters are not deserting for good, but avoiding what is for them an irrelevant pastime in the same way I once avoided that Easter trip to the Isle of Man. Just like me now welcoming time with the family, I believe that today’s absent kids will be back as mature adults. Digital platforms may be constantly evolving, but it appears that kids and families aren’t all that different. To me, there’s something reassuring in that.