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This time last year, Facebook was the focus of many of our client inquiries and YouthBeat related questions. This year, we’ve hardly had a request about the nature of social networks. Instead, apps occupy the minds of most marketers and innovators working in the youth space, and Facebook has hit a few bumps in the road. While the last week or so has been good for Facebook’s stock price, we have frequently found ourselves wondering if Facebook still matters to tweens and teens or if its success is fleeting.

  • Facebook is a distant second to texting, in terms of keeping in touch with friends. For this generation, social networks are places to play but much of their communication is mobile.
  • In the first half of 2012, the number of tweens signing on to social networks was significantly lower than in the same period the year before. We often see tweens embrace the most buzzed about practices and habits in higher numbers than even their teen counterparts but, likewise, we also see them “jump ship” faster than their cohorts.
  • And ownership of app enabled devices continues to climb among tweens and teens making mobile more important than ever. Facebook has been criticized for the quality of its app, so it’s no surprise that tweens’ and teens’ who turn to tablets and smartphones may have an adverse relationship to Facebook.
  • STILL Facebook tops the list of sites teens most frequently visit.

But perhaps there’s another way to see how Facebook matters….Psychologists and sociologists often debate the ways in which technology inserts itself into development and socialization processes. Sherry Turkle is one psychologist who offers compelling evidence that Facebook might matter more for the way it’s used than for the time it takes up in tweens’ and teens’ digital diaries.

Turkle, the founder of the MIT Initiative on Technology and Self, recently shared some of the insights from a study that served as the foundation for her book, Alone Together, with NPR’s Terry Gross: “[Teens] felt that on Facebook their life story followed them through their lives in a way that their older brothers and sisters were allowed to start fresh when they moved from elementary school to junior high, from junior high to high school, and then crucially from high school to college.”

Turkle suggests that Facebook might influence how free adolescents coming of age currently may feel about playing with identity (the traditional “work” of this stage): "Play with multiple identities in adolescence…used to kind of be their fun, and now there's one identity that counts — it's the Facebook identity. And I think many adolescents are also feeling the pressure of that.”

The Facebook effect is important to understand and explore, but finding ways to fill the gap and promoting safe persona play among adolescents might be the next best move for creators of online experiences for tweens and teens.