Reaching Teens in the New Social Media Environment

Teens are the grownups of tomorrow.  They are also a powerful consumer (and increasingly, political) demographic today, so it makes sense to try to understand their online habits.

Andrew Watts, an “actual teen,” recently wrote a popular post describing how teens use a variety of social media platforms.  His insights are interesting, and I’ll describe them below, but they should be taken with a grain of a salt.

Andrew’s a white, male, American, college student.  This means he represents only a small segment of the teen demographic.  This may explain why he does not mention the video-sharing app Vine, despite its 40 million users, 57% of whom are female and the plurality of whom are 18-20.  This isn’t the whole story of teen social media use, even within the US.

Teen Social Media Preferences

Here’s what he has to say on the top platforms:


  • It’s dead to us.
  • …seen as an awkward family dinner party we can’t really leave.
  • …used by us mainly for its group functionality.
  • …often the jumping-off point for many people to try to find you online, simply because everyone around us has it.


  • …by far the most used social media outlet for my age group.
  • People take time to edit their photos with filters…. This means the content on Instagram is normally “better”
  • Many of those younger than me (10–16 years old) who I’ve talked to about this matter don’t even have a Facebook — Instagram is all that they need.


  • To be honest, a lot of us simply do not understand the point of Twitter.
  • …always a core group at every school that uses it very religiously to tweet… but besides that many don’t use it.


  • …quickly becoming the most used social media network
  • ….where we can really be ourselves while being attached to our social identity.


  • …a secret society that everyone is in, but no one talks about.
  • …often seen as a “judgment-free zone” where, due to the lack of identity on the site, you can really be who you want to be.
  • The only Tumblr URLs I know of people in real life are my close friends and vice versa.

Yik Yak

  • …ton of friends in college have the application
  • …only as good as the 10 mile radius around you, so if you are in an area with a low population of Yik Yak users, you won’t really be using the application much.

…And What They Mean

Andrew’s preferences speak strongly to teens’ desire to have their own space online.  They don’t like the “awkward family dinner party” of Facebook and would prefer to spend time in spaces like Tumblr, Yik Yak, and Snapchat where they can be more private about what they share and more selective about who they interact with.

Still, the desire to be seen (positively) is strong.  Most of these platforms are visual and the only popular text-based platform is Yik Yak.  Andrew casually notes, “If I don’t get any likes on my Instagram photo or Facebook post within 15 minutes you can sure bet I’ll delete it.”  Instagram, which he perceives as most-used among his peers, has a culture of (for lack of a better word) “doctoring” photos with filters and tints to make good times look even better.  In this way it mirrors Facebook social pressure to only show the positive or desirable parts of one’s life.

Yet authenticity is also important to teens, albeit on different platforms.  Andrew notes that “On no other social network (besides Twitter possibly) is it acceptable post an ‘I’m soooo bored’ photo besides Snapchat” and that Tumblr is popular because it’s a place “where you are your true self” without the “social pressure” present of platforms like Facebook.

The 3rd Generation of Social Media

It seems we may be entering a third generation of social media.  The first wave was typified by personal blogging platforms like Blogger and Worpress, where text was king and the blogger and commenter had a interactive but hierarchical relationship.  The second wave was typified by the all-in social media platform Facebook, where text and image were equally important. Everyone (including your boss and Mom) were members, and members related to one another on more or less equal terms.

The third wave, which is dominated by photos and video, seems to be typified by platforms where contact is more selective and less equal.  They have more constrained  norms of followership and anonymity that harken back to the earliest days of the Internet.  In addition, platforms like YouTube and Vine has launched a new generation of young social media stars with followerships in the millions who earn money and fame for the content they produce.

Teens are taking advantages of the affordances of broadband, which allows for easy sharing of visual content.  They are also re-adopting older norms of the internet, in which the online world was a “cyberspace” separate from the physical world of day-to-day life.  At the same time, today’s vloggers are not so different than the bloggers of the late nineties: they use the same medium you do, but they’re a lot more successful at it.  There were no Facebook stars.  There are stars on Vine.

Reaching Teens in the New Social Media Environment

These features create both obstacles and opportunities to reaching teens on social media.  Selectivity means it’s going to be harder to reach teens unless they really want to hear from you.  Narrowcast platforms like Snapchat, Yik Yak, and WeChat make it hard to broadcast to a large audience, since individuals associate in small friend groups or by geography.  This is in contrast to fully public platforms like Twitter and semi-public platforms like Facebook, where broadcast is easier.

Stardom means that if you can get a popular social media personality to amplify your message, that message will be perceived as more credible by that individual’s followers.  (Product placement is already common among vloggers, though it has rather seedy connotations.)   Just as it used to be common to maintain a list of journalist contacts, it may make sense to create relationships with social media stars on YouTube or Vine that speak to your demographic.  Remember, “star” is a relative term.  The best social media star for you may be an individual with 3,000 followers in your city and who speaks to your target group, not someone with 30 million followers worldwide.

To figure out how to reach your target audience online, contact me and let’s set up a time to talk.