Andrew Halls of King's College Wimbledon recently declared that social media drives teenagers to become "the hopelessly inadequate stars of their own second-rate biopics."
This comment might sound harsh for some social media enthusiasts, and many reactions from the digital elite tend to deny that the internet has any 'responsibility' towards youngsters. Although the accusation that social media is a danger to the youth is lacking in its distinction, not tackling some of the most negative attitudes that we find through social media is equally as bad.
GfK's MultiMedia Mentor® recently demonstrated that teenagers' Internet use is growing faster than any other key age group, abetted by a variety of devices - smartphones, tablets, videogame consoles, and connected TVs. Time spent online by teens (ages 13 to 17) rose 37%, to just over 4 hours per day. That is absolutely crucial in terms of social interactions that are now done through personal digital devices. And if we consider that human beings also shape their identities through others' eyes, it's probably the most important ground to work on to prepare the next generation of citizens.
The first problem comes from the way social networks are actually created themselves.
Most of the popular ones (think about Facebook) were initially created by student-genius; but they are now mostly conceived for adults. Not so many places are built for young teenagers with them. In terms of UX, social networks often consider users as a sort of homogeneous population with different usages. Although we know pretty well how to build an app or a social network, we do not necessarily ask ourselves every day if the experience that we are trying to implement is suitable for the fact that kids are going to be playing around with it.
The most important apps are now in a sort of extimacy territory, between intimate, personal places and the public eye; we forgot how crucial BBM and SMS are to spread the word among teenage groups and we now have a strong validation of this logic with the new social ecosystem where Snapchat or WeChat operate.
Regarding Snapchat, the way it's been marketed to parents was that it was potentially more secure as it is ephemeral, compared to other social networks that leave long-lasting digital footprints. It's probably true in terms of USP, but what really happens on Snapchat is slightly different - some teenagers "flash" boobs (or try to get some) and some of them try to capture the pictures through screenshots...
The second problem comes from the audience's acquisition and retention mechanisms
The gamification (then the addiction to a platform) comes from the way we can hijack it. Going back to Snapchat, there's nothing crazy happening there for a responsible adult; we're supposed to be free and fully aware of terms and conditions. But how about young teenagers? Are we sure they are self-aware of who they're talking to and how their pictures can be used?
Now that we can tell how old the smartphone user is through the data that we can grab, there could at least be some warning when we download specific apps.
Some might say that there's nothing to worry about and that we should not ban or take public actions against the internet as teenagers always try to defeat codes and rules. Not so sure...
Social media breaks the teenage journey between home and school
Listening secretly to a radio show at 1am alone in your bed, or watching porn with friends are significantly different media activities than trying to influence someone to misbehave unwillingly, through a smartphone. Threats can be very tangible and real for high school girls and boys and it does not stop when you turn off your device - that's the big difference with pre - social media era. Once you've done something wrong online or something that you've been manipulated, it leaves a very long-lasting footprint.
Social media is like any society - the main difference is that things go faster, stronger, wider. The idea is not to consider social media as the problem but as the battlefield.
The battlefield for a network: grow with your users
There's actually a big opportunity for the next generation of social network - most of the successful ones need to grow with their users. We can refer to Metcalfe's law that states that the value of a telecommunications network is proportional to the square of the number of connected users of the system .
But more importantly, a social network should actually grow in terms of maturity with their users. It's no longer a horizontal concept (the reach of a system) but a deeper one; what makes the many streams of users live happily together? What's the glue which will stick to these people in 5, 10, maybe 15 years?
That might be interesting to consider teenagers not as an audience which for now help in monetizing a start-up, but more to consider them as the next generation of decision-makers. Not so many social networks these days set up this democratic dream.