The world’s largest social network is internally grappling with an existential crisis: an aging user base
Earlier this year, a researcher at Facebook shared some alarming statistics with colleagues.
Teenage users of the Facebook app in the US had declined by 13 percent since 2019 and were projected to drop 45 percent over the next two years, driving an overall decline in daily users in the company’s most lucrative ad market. Young adults between the ages of 20 and 30 were expected to decline by 4 percent during the same timeframe. Making matters worse, the younger a user was, the less on average they regularly engaged with the app. The message was clear: Facebook was losing traction with younger generations fast.
The “aging up issue is real,” the researcher wrote in an internal memo. They predicted that, if “increasingly fewer teens are choosing Facebook as they grow older,” the company would face a more “severe” decline in young users than it already projected.
The findings, echoed by other internal documents and my conversations with current and former employees, show that Facebook sees its aging user base as an existential threat to the long-term health of its business and that it’s trying desperately to correct the problem with little indication that its strategy will work. If it doesn’t correct course, the 17-year-old social network could, for the first time, lose out on an entire generation. And while Instagram remains incredibly popular with teens, Facebook’s own data shows that they are starting to engage with the app less.
The internal documents are part of disclosures made to the Securities and Exchange Commission and provided to Congress in redacted form by legal counsel for Frances Haugen, an ex-Facebook employee turned prominent whistleblower. A consortium of news organizations, including The Verge, has obtained the redacted versions received by Congress. Some documents served as the basis for earlier reporting in The Wall Street Journal.
Facebook’s struggle to attract users under the age of 30 has been ongoing for years, dating back to as early as 2012. But according to the documents, the problem has grown more severe recently. And the stakes are high. While it famously started as a networking site for college students, employees have predicted that the aging up of the app’s audience — now nearly 2 billion daily users — has the potential to further alienate young people, cutting off future generations and putting a ceiling on future growth.
The problem explains why the company has taken such a keen interest in courting young people and even pre-teens to its main app and Instagram, spinning up dedicated youth teams to cater to them. In 2017, it debuted a standalone Messenger app for kids, and its plans for a version of Instagram for kids were recently shelved after lawmakers decried the initiative.
At the same time, a rising crop of younger social networks has continued growing in popularity with young people — a phenomenon Facebook has closely tracked with its own research. In an internal presentation earlier this year, employees estimated that teens spend 2–3x more time on TikTok than on Instagram and that Snapchat is the preferred method of communicating with best friends for young people.
“Our products are still widely used by teens, but we face tough competition from the likes of Snapchat and TikTok,” Joe Osborne, a Facebook spokesperson, said in response to questions about the documents cited in this story. “All social media companies want teens to use their services. We are no different.”
In March of this year, a team of data scientists at Facebook presented the company’s chief product officer, Chris Cox, with “heath scorecards” for Facebook and Instagram’s usage among teens and young adults. Instagram was still strong with young people but losing engagement in key markets, including the US, Australia, and Japan. And the age of Facebook’s user base was increasing rapidly.
“Most young adults perceive Facebook as a place for people in their 40s and 50s,” according to the presentation. “Young adults perceive content as boring, misleading, and negative. They often have to get past irrelevant content to get to what matters.” It added that they “have a wide range of negative associations with Facebook including privacy concerns, impact to their wellbeing, along with low awareness of relevant services.”
The March presentation to Cox showed that, in the US, “teen acquisition is low and regressing further.” Account registrations for users under 18 were down 26 percent from the previous year in the app’s five top countries. For teens already on Facebook, the company was continuing to “see lower or worsening levels of engagement compared to older cohorts.” Messages sent by teens were down 16 percent from the previous year, while messages sent by users aged 20–30 were flat.
A “particularly concerning trend,” according to one slide, was that time spent in the Facebook app by young people in the US had declined from the period before the onset of the coronavirus pandemic last year, when usage of Facebook’s services momentarily spiked across the board. Another slide described “addressing the existing engagement gap” between younger and older users, saying that people older than 30 in the US were spending, on average, 24 more minutes per day on Facebook than younger users.
Facebook internally measures its user base against population estimates from the United Nations for specific countries. If the social network has the same amount of monthly users in an age bracket as what the estimates say for that region, it’s fully saturated. The presentation to Cox explained that the average Facebook user age “has been increasing disproportionately to the average population age over time. If this continues, [the Facebook app’s] average age will continue to increase, potentially disengaging younger users even more.”
Instagram was doing better with young people, with full saturation in the US, France, the UK, Japan, and Australia. But there was still cause for concern. Posting by teens had dropped 13 percent from 2020 and “remains the most concerning trend,” the researchers noted, adding that the increased use of TikTok by teens meant that “we are likely losing our total share of time.”
To address the growing crisis, employees at Facebook and Instagram have, for the past year, been planning a slew of products tailored for teens and young adults, according to the internal documents. But they recognize that it’s going to be an uphill battle on both platforms.
Young adults “feel Facebook shouldn’t be the place for rants and charged opinions, even though it seems prevalent on the platform,” according to a November 2020 strategy document about targeting young adults. “External forces such as negative media coverage further tarnish this perception,” it continued, equating to “a brand tax we need to get ahead of.”
In order to address the “significant risk” of young adults engaging less and less with Facebook over time, employees last November identified two “beached” areas of focus, allowing “us to establish credibility and gain trust for extension into future areas” like mental health products. They laid out a multi-year plan to “enable young adults to connect with mentors for professional guidance” and “engage in meaningful conversations around causes to take action locally with others.”
Planned features included asking young people to update their friend networks to make them more relevant since their connections “are often dormant and they struggle to realize any value” from them after collecting hundreds of friends over the years. They began work to tweak the News Feed algorithm specifically for young adults, with the goal of testing the change as early as the second half of this year, in order to show them “unconnected” content from accounts they didn’t choose to follow.
The employees also discussed letting young people set different profile identities that were specific to certain Facebook groups. Other products included a more visual version of the News Feed tentatively called Spotlight and “mood feeds” to increase “visitation and engagement.”
The documents show that, as part of its youth push, Facebook has been working on an unreleased version of Facebook Groups called Groups+, slated in the November document to begin testing as soon as this year, that is intended to let people join groups for specific personalities and “close-knit communities” as a way to “increase cultural relevance.” A whole pillar of products targeting people between the ages of 20 and 30 is focused on competing with LinkedIn, allowing people to host resumes and browse for jobs or career advice in a specialized feed.
Joe Osborne, the Facebook spokesperson, said, “We continuously explore new products and experiences for people, but these efforts either evolved or never left the exploration phase.”
For Instagram, much of the product work targeting young people has recently focused on reducing the negative experiences of social comparison and bullying that they report. A presentation from earlier this year said that 7 percent of teens report experiencing bullying on Instagram and that 40 percent of all bullying happened in private messages. Other internal research documents, some of which were earlier reported on by The Wall Street Journal, show that teens have told the company they experience negative social comparison and even depression from using Instagram.
Sixty-one percent of new teen accounts on Instagram choose to make their profiles private on initial setup, the presentation said, adding that Instagram employees wanted to make “nudging” product tweaks to encourage more young users to set their accounts to private. The documents show that secondary, private “finsta” accounts have also been exploding in popularity, especially among Instagram’s youngest users — behavior that employees want to encourage as a way to retain young people.
“Teens seek a way to connect with their friends, but don’t want to share with all their followers,” the company’s researchers wrote in one recent document. “They want to easily share with just the people that they trust so that they feel seen, accepted, and validated.”
Attracting young people and keeping them engaged remains top of mind inside Instagram. Adam Mosseri, the head of the app, in May told employees that Instagram’s goal is to be “a place where young people define themselves and the future,” according to The New York Times.
Losing young people wasn’t always the existential threat for the blue Facebook app that it is now, according to Michael Sayman, a 25-year-old former product manager for youth products who joined the company in 2014 when he was just 17. With the rise of selfie cameras in phones, social apps became more visual while Facebook stayed mostly focused on text posts.
Copying Stories from Snapchat — which reduced the pressure people feel to share everyday snippets of their lives by making them disappear — has helped keep younger users on Instagram, as has encouraging the use of multiple accounts. But Facebook’s use by young people has stayed on a consistent decline. By the time Sayman left in 2017, “the company had understood very clearly the importance,” he told me. “It’s an entire generation.”
Nowadays, teens are increasingly flocking to more immersive, social game platforms like Fortnite or Sayman’s current employer, Roblox. These 3D worlds with custom avatars appeal to young people who are looking to be online without the pressure of people judging their appearance or surroundings. And while a lot of traditional social media can feel like a performance, these virtual game worlds are fun. Incidentally, Facebook is planning to rebrand its corporate name to focus on the metaverse, which could partly be an effort to try to appeal to young people again.
For now, Facebook isn’t even sure if its plans to win back young people are enough. As the March presentation to Cox bluntly said: “We believe it’s too early to assess the effectiveness of our current suite of big bets for teens on Instagram and young adults on Facebook, and whether they are sufficient given the current competitive landscape.”