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SAN FRANCISCO — Darnell Sullivan, a senior at Sacred Heart High School, paused in the campus quad during lunch to explain why he no longer checks his Facebook page as religiously as he used to.
“My mom’s on Facebook,” he said with a tinge of disdain. “I try not to use it. It’s for old people.”
Once a redoubt for teens, Facebook is now struggling to keep younger users interested as other online services increasingly beckon. Many adolescents now say they spend more time with Instagram and Snapchat, two photo- and video-sharing apps, than updating friends on Facebook about nights out on the town and their favorite hip-hop songs.
The shift marks a major reversal from the social-networking landscape of a couple of years ago. Even the strongest companies can face stiff challenges as adolescent fads ebb and flow.
Last month Facebook acknowledged for the first time that teens had lost some of their enthusiasm for the service. Daily use among U.S. teens was flat, the company said, after years of big gains. Among younger teens, use declined.
David Ebersman, Facebook’s chief financial officer, cautioned the data was fuzzy because users can easily misrepresent their age. But he added that Facebook would continue to develop new products to get people of all ages to spend more time on the site.
The admission about stalled growth still raised some alarm bells, however. Could such an important demographic be on the verge of a mass exodus?
Pictures seem more interesting. No one likes to read that much, and it’s fast. And you can see what people are doing.
Katie Hernandez, freshman
on why she prefers SnapChat and Instagram
It certainly helps Facebook’s cause that it owns Instagram, one of the services teens are flocking to. Last year Facebook acquired the social network for photos for $1 billion.
Last week news leaked that Facebook recently tried to buy Snapchat, a service for sharing snapshots that disappear a few seconds after they are viewed, for $3 billion. But Snapchat, led by a duo of 20-somethings, stunned the technology world by spurning the lucrative offer. By remaining independent, the founders of the two-year-old company are hoping it will be worth more down the road. The service, which initially gained notoriety for users’ sharing risqué photos, recently said it handles 350 million “snaps,” or messages, daily.
In their own words
Sitting at the lunch tables at Sacred Heart recently, students described their obsession with both Instagram and Snapchat. Many said they send photos or look at images posted by friends during virtually any spare moment, whether at home or during lulls in class.
“I’m on Instagram like 24/7,” said Katie Hernandez, a freshman who says she posted two photos the previous day — although her friends quickly chimed in that the average is closer to nine. When did she last open her Instagram app?
“Five minutes ago,” she said.
“Pictures seem more interesting,” Hernandez said. “No one likes to read that much, and it’s fast. And you can see what people are doing.”
If there’s free time in class and the teacher isn’t looking, students said they use Snapchat to share goofy photos of themselves or others as a way to say hello to friends. Recipients get an alert when snaps arrive and then a few seconds to look at them before they vanish from the viewer’s device and Snapchat’s servers. One student said he received 100 alerts day, a testament to how popular Snapchatting has become. Many teens said the images served as a welcome distraction while they were otherwise bored in class.
Teachers vary in cracking down on the practice. Some threaten to take away mobile phones if they catch students using them in class, but others just ignore it, students said.
“With Snapchat, you want to make people laugh, but you don’t want them to let everyone else see it,” said Siena Clark, a freshman who, like many teens, uses the service for more private photos.
Most teens said they use several social-media services, jumping back and forth, them depending on what they’re doing. Keeping in the loop with friends can seem like a full-time job.
In addition to photo sharing and Facebook, many teens said they follow celebrities and their favorite musicians on Twitter. A handful said they also use Vine, a relatively new app from Twitter for sharing video clips that are limited to six seconds. Some older teens mentioned spending a lot of time on Tumblr, a social blogging site acquired by Yahoo earlier this year for $1.1 billion. Unlike the frivolity of other services, Tumblr tends to be a more serious outlet for personal interests, such as art and fashion.
Quickly changing times
Facebook clearly has its work cut out for it to regain momentum with younger users, judging from what many students said. Most continue to use Facebook, but they said they check their accounts less often than they did a couple of years ago and post less frequently.
It’s not just that the service is overrun with adults, particularly extended family, at least from the perspective of teens. It’s also become too complicated and filled with too much drama, they said. Others said writing and reading posts is tedious compared with just snapping or scrolling through photos.
In a sign of the times, several freshmen out of nearly two dozen interviewed said they never used Facebook and are perfectly happy without it. Such an attitude would have been almost inconceivable a couple years ago during Facebook’s rapid rise because students who didn’t have accounts risked being social outcasts.
Julia Gandolfo, a freshman, said she went straight to Instagram when she started using social media two years ago. Her mom suggested Facebook, but her friends were all focused on the upstarts.
“When I was going to get on social media, Instagram was in,” she said. “Everyone’s on Instagram.”
Indeed, Instagram continues to flourish under Facebook’s ownership. More than 150 million people use the service monthly, up 50 percent from eight months ago. Facebook just started to tests ads on Instagram, which many analysts hope will turn into another cash cow.
Facebook doing fine
To be sure, Facebook isn’t exactly suffering. With 1.2 billion users, it remains an online colossus, with profits in the latest quarter of nearly $1 billion. Furthermore, it remains well positioned for the future. It has a strong following on mobile devices — a critical factor, given the increasing numbers of people using smartphones and tablets to go online.
Unlike other students interviewed, Ryan Gjew, a senior, said he uses only Facebook. He doesn’t have a smartphone, so using the popular photo sharing services like most of his classmates do isn’t really an option. In any case, he said Facebook is enough for him.
“I communicate with my friends excessively,” he said of his Facebook use. “It’s like a friggin’ drug.”