Teens Don’t Use Facebook, but They Can’t Escape It, Either

Jace has never lived in a world without Facebook. His father already had an account by the time he was born. Even before Jace could understand the concept of Facebook, he felt its influence every time his dad had him stop what he was doing and pose for photos that were destined to be shared online.

Today, the 13-year-old Virginia teenager doesn’t use the site himself, even though his dad signed him up. “It’s kinda lame,” he says. Facebook has just always been there, in the background of his life—the place where the pictures his parents took of him ended up, where people left comments and likes.

There have been countless stories about how teens think Facebook, which turned 15 this week, is uncool. Only 51 percent of US teens say they use Facebook today, according to a recent national survey, down from 94 percent in 2012. WIRED spoke to a dozen teens in different parts of the country about Facebook, and most of them said they were indifferent to the site. But the social network has become so dominant that it still touches their lives—even if it’s their parents who are doing most of the posting.

Interviews with half a dozen parents reveal the platform is still an essential part of their family life. They use it to keep distant relatives informed, to get parenting advice, to show off their kids’ accomplishments, to vent. All the parents who spoke to WIRED were Facebook early adopters, and have been on the site for nearly its entire existence. Many tried to get their kids to use Facebook with them once they were old enough, but with a few exceptions say almost all their kids declined, or use their accounts only for games or logging in to other sites.

These children are aware of Facebook from the youngest of ages, and as they grow up, it becomes something they have to actively negotiate with their parents. Rather than the classic 21st-century worry about what kids are doing online, Facebook use requires a sort of role reversal. For the families who spoke to WIRED, it’s often the teens asking the parents to limit what they post, or how much time they spend on the site. While a few teens mentioned broader privacy issues and the impact Facebook is having on society, most focused on more immediate concerns—what their parents were posting about them.

These children are aware of Facebook from the youngest of ages, and as they grow up, it becomes something they have to actively negotiate with their parents.

Jordyn, a 19-year-old who has had her own Facebook account for a few years, recently discovered with horror that her mom had posted a photo of her from middle school “after a particularly traumatic haircut.” “I was super mad about it for sure. I had super curly hair and had to get it cut very short after I burnt some off!” she told WIRED over Twitter DM. “She teased me about it but took it down pretty quickly, so I didn’t mind much. I personally chose any photo she posted of me for almost a month after that.”

Even when the photos are good, constantly being asked to pose for them gets old. “When I was little, I loved posing for the photos, but now it’s sort of tiring,” Jordyn says. “It’s less the sharing that bothers me, and more that I’m having to pause what I’m doing to smile or repeat something I’ve just said so that everyone can read it verbatim.” Others echoed this sentiment.

But tolerance was the common response from teens, who, having grown up in the social media era, are inured to being overexposed from birth. “My mom [posts] stuff about me, and it used to annoy me, but I eventually just kind of learned to accept it,” says Lorena, a 17-year-old from California. Her mother uses Facebook to stay in touch with their family in Mexico. Once she got her own Facebook account, Lorena made sure to tweak her privacy settings so that her mom couldn’t just tag her in photos automatically. “In case it’s embarrassing and I don’t want my friends to see it,” she says. (The few embarrassing photos that her friends have found on her mom’s page have made their way to a group chat.)

Most of the teens who spoke to WIRED aren’t too worried about their friends seeing their parents’ Facebook posts because their friends aren’t on Facebook. “[It’s] an ‘old person’ social media,” says Lauren, a high-schooler in the Bay Area. Lauren doesn’t have an account, and none of her friends are active on it, “because what are you gonna post that you want your grandma to see?”

Many parents told WIRED that they try to be careful about what they post. Sharon Van Epps, a Seattle-based writer, frequently posts about her three teenage children. But she doesn’t post about her kids publicly, she only shares to her friends. She also doesn’t tag them in anything that could hurt their college applications—she’s aware that college recruiters look at social media as part of the admission process.

The other thing that keeps her from posting pictures or stories her kids might not like? They can reciprocate. “Just the way parents post funny things about their kids on Facebook, kids are taking Snapchat videos to make fun of their parents. It’s horrible the stuff they put out about me where I don’t look very pretty,” Van Epps says. “But if I’m going to post about them, I can’t really blame them for making me a character.” Even parents fear getting dragged by the teens.

“Just the way parents post funny things about their kids on Facebook, kids are taking Snapchat videos to make fun of their parents.”

Sharon Van Epps

Still, Van Epps has twice had to take down posts after her oldest daughter objected to them. Her youngest daughter, 15-year-old Makeda, is more laid-back. Even though her mom’s posts can be quite frank, Makeda says, “I don’t care at all.” At the same time, she likes to keep their social media lives separate. Instagram is her thing, and Facebook is her mom’s. Makeda doesn’t have her own Facebook account, and she hasn’t gotten around to accepting her mom’s request to follow her private Instagram.

Many of the parents said they show everything they post about their kids to them, because they know their kids like to see what people are saying. At least a few teens agreed it was fun to read the comments people left on their parents’ pages. Some parents ask permission before posting anything about their older children. (A few only started doing this after their kids insisted.)

“Today’s my 14-year-old daughter’s birthday. And so I posted a picture,” says Luke Rosenberger, a pastor from Ohio with five daughters. He says he’s careful not to share things his daughters wouldn’t want extended family and friends to see. As he posted, his daughter sat alongside him, watching. She doesn’t have an account—and doesn’t want one, according to her dad. But he lets her know when he posts about her.

As their kids got older, most parents said they began posting about them less. Partially this is because their kids had more agency, but also because the things teens get into isn’t necessarily appropriate fodder for Facebook. Chantal Potvin, a mother of four in Ottawa, posts about her kids’ accomplishments but wouldn’t ever mention when one of them, say, goes to a music festival and then comes home and sleeps for two days straight.

As her kids grew up, Pontvin learned to pivot to other platforms so she could meet them where they are. She interacts with them throughout the day on Snapchat and Instagram. “I tag them in memes,” she says. “It has almost replaced how I talk to them some days.”

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Most of the teens who spoke to WIRED said that after talking with their parents they now trust them not to post anything too bad. Some noted that the culture of Facebook also encourages their parents to mostly boast about them, so they aren’t really incentivized to share bad or embarrassing things, anyway. “Facebook has become a place to kind of show off how happy and ‘perfect’ your family is compared to others,” says Lorena. The teens note the competitive and fake “like” culture of Facebook can make people feel bad. Studies have shown increased use of the site leads to low self-esteem. Stanford and New York University scientists reported last month that leaving Facebook can make people happier, though less informed.

And “addiction” to Facebook, as some of the teens put it, can get in the way of spending actual family time together. Some said Facebook was their parents main past-time. But even still the teens don’t begrudge their parents their fun. If anything, they think it’s quaint. “I understand why they do it. They want to share with family and friends,” says Lauren. “It’s out of touch for my generation,” Jordyn says, “but it seems to work for them.”

But Facebook might not work without the teens. Losing the youth has sounded the death knell for many a social media site before (cough MySpace). Zuckerberg knows this, and has been trying for years to find ways to hook youngsters. Arguably his smartest move was acquiring Instagram in 2012—every teen WIRED spoke to with the exception of one uses regularly. Other attempts have been less successful. In 2017, Facebook purchased an app called tbh that was a hit with teens, only to shut it down months later due to “low usage.” Facebook has also copied features from apps popular with teens, like the expiring Stories reminiscent of Snapchat, or the TikTok ripoff Lasso.

Buying separate apps that teens won’t associate with Facebook is probably Facebook’s smartest bet, based on WIRED’s conversations with teens. Parents love the one-stop-shop-ness of the site, but that same feature was a complete turn-off to the teens. They prefer individual apps for different things: Snapchat and WhatsApp (which is also owned by Facebook) for communicating with their friends, Instagram for sharing photos, Twitter (yes, a lot of the teens WIRED talked to use Twitter!) for news. This preference for siloed social media flies in direct opposition to Zuckerberg’s intention to combine WhatsApp, Instagram, and Facebook messaging into a cohesive platform, and raises the question of whether doing so risks alienating the youth.

No matter what, though, the teens think Facebook, which for them has always been there, will probably always be around. Maybe, just maybe, as they become adults their preferences for social media will begin to look more like their parents, and they’ll start using the site. More likely, they say, when they get older they’ll be happy to look back at Facebook like a static scrapbook of their childhoods.

“It’s kinda fun when a memory pops up,” says Jordyn. “Mom will show it to me and say, ‘Oh, you said this when you were 10!’ And we can laugh for a minute about how terrible I was.”


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