New research shows Facebook impacting behaviors in formative years

Guest post by {grow} community member Tom Webster

My friend Mark Schaefer wrote a provocative piece in this very space yesterday about why Facebook will become the most dangerous company on earth.  Perhaps he underestimated the problem.

One of Mark’s central observations — that a public company must find ways to grow, and Facebook’s only path to do that is through you and me — was particularly insightful and, for some, alarming. I’ve been studying Facebook for five years as a researcher, and after seeing our most recent data on social media behaviors I can tell you this:  It’s scarier than you think.

In data that my company (Edison Research) just released yesterday, we found that 54% of all Americans age 12 and over have a personal profile on Facebook. This represents some modest growth over last year’s 51%, but not hockey-stick growth, so one might be tempted to see Facebook’s rise as slowing down, especially when that growth is trended over the past five years.

Not so fast. Numbers like “54%” don’t tell the full story.

First of all, it is important to know this: in the same report, we show the percentage of Americans 12+ who have a personal profile on any social network as 56%, and no other network is even remotely close to Facebook. When we talk about social media in this country we are talking about Facebook, plain and simple. The other thing to note about that 54% is it’s an average that masks some intriguing demographic disparities. Note the breakdown of social media usage by demographic below: (and remember, Facebook is used by 96+% of these Americans)

There are two important stories here.

The first speaks to the saturation that Mark wrote about, but in a different light. For the second year in a row, the growth for Facebook has really been people aged 45 and over.  Indeed, the 12-34 demographic has largely been static since 2010. Certainly, it isn’t wrong to think that it’s pretty much all ashore that’s going ashore with younger demographics.  And, as Mark correctly pointed out, as Facebook’s growth with older demos slows, the company will need to find ways to wring more data out of us in order to feed their shareholders’ insatiable hunger for growth.

The second story, however, is more subtle. As I noted earlier, usage by the 12-24’s haven’t really grown appreciably since 2010. But look where they are “stalled” — at an 80% adoption rate. Now, getting 80% of American youth to do anything is an unbelievably powerful construct to get your head around.

You can’t find any other media property remotely close to that. Heck, 80% of 12-24s don’t have smartphones, or landlines, or read the newspaper, let alone use any one brand or product. That 80% use of social media (i.e. Facebook) is remarkable, to say the least.

Eventually, those 24-year-olds turn 25, and those 34-year-olds turn 35, and so on. Gradually, as these younger demographics age into older demographics, they will take these learned behaviors with them. In that sense, it’s like smoking. Facebook has changed the behavior of Americans in their formative years, and they will take those learned behaviors with them.

With nearly 8 out of 10 young Americans making Facebook the hub of their online lives — and, thus, their lives — the ways in which they consume and share information have changed irrevocably.

Consider the number of Americans who have the “social habit” and check their profiles several times every day — while Facebook’s Edgerank algorithm prioritizes the information they receive based upon our personal interactions — and you can begin to see just how much sway Facebook holds over what we know as Americans.  These 12-24s are literally growing up with the news and information they are exposed to being curated by their friends. And by Facebook.

As a parent I am keeping a wary eye on this. Garbage in, garbage out, as they say.

What do you think? Am I overreacting? What do you see in the data?


Tom Webster is Vice President of Strategy for Edison Research, a custom market research company best known as the sole providers of Exit Polling data during U.S. Elections for all the major news networks.  Webster specializes in drawing insight from social media data, and writes about these topics at www.brandsavant.com. Follow him on Twitter at @Webby2001.

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  • Tom, I think you need some measures of engagement here.  99% of all houses have electricity – but, few of us are electrical engineers who understand how to balance load factors.  We could all have profiles and most of us be doing nothing with them.  The only sticky parts to Facebook appear to be crummy games.  (My own view is that FB would be much better off selling specialized applications for trade shows/conventions rather trying to be an advertising platform.)

  • We will be reporting some measures of engagement in the coming weeks, but in terms of this article, that’s asking for Facebook to pass a bar that we aren’t asking of things like electricity, or smartphone usage, or tv/radio consumption. If I’m going to put some kind of qualifier on FB usage when comparing it to some of these other GIANT media platforms, then I have to do it for all of those things. I’ll say it again – whether those profiles are actively engaged or not, the fact that 80% of 12-24s do ANYTHING the same is simply staggering. 

    Also, I feel compelled to point out that those sticky, crummy games are *really* sticky. Zynga has 240 million users. That puts it as the fourth largest country on earth, right between the US and Indonesia. Those numbers hurt my head.

  • Great insight Tom. There is no question that we have “social habits”, and that we will be taking them with us as we age. I don’t see communication habits regressing from digital/social ones, back to the analog world of telephones and paper letters. This is especially true in our youth. They are growing up with this social habit, and will most certainly be highly addicted to it as they grow older. I agree that it’s our job to make sure that our children don’t sit in front of a precession of garbage, help them see the world outside of the Facebook bubble, and manage their learning. Unfortunately it’s going to be extremely difficult to change the course of the next generation. The social revolution is well underway.

  • Now I feel and sound old, but clearly we aren’t going to change them. We have to change with them. But the amount of information that we “know” that is now filtered through Facebook is a real paradigm shift. Thanks for your comment!

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  • Look forward to your measure – we already have smart meters for our electrical/hydro networks.  But, even the dumb meters measured load.  So I have failed to understand your remarks.

    Yes, I agree that the crummy games are very sticky.  People will spend hours on drinking bathtub gin, if it appears to be free.

  • EdgeRank is Hearst or Murdoch with an algorithmic cloak. 

    With about three lines of code, Facebook could dramatically reduce what you see and hear about Starbucks, the Red Sox (yes, please), Romney, China, or any other topic or person. Eventually, it will be like having the only working printing press. 

    If anything Tom, you are under-alarmist about the POTENTIAL for abuse. Potential for abuse doesn’t equal abuse. But still….

  • Anonymous

    Hey @twitter-755294:disqus ! Great article, and alarming doesn’t even begin to summarize how I feel. As a parent, yes, I am concerned, but I control access and my daughter doesn’t have a profile and will not have a profile as long as she’s living at home. Done.

    My bigger concern are the 25-44 year-olds actively using FB and modeling addictive behavior to the younger demographic living under their roofs. It’s easy to point to the youth and say they’ve shifted the way they interact with the world around them, but let’s not summarily remove the responsibility we have as adults to behave in such a way that demonstrates restraint, control, and minimal interaction with FB.

    Too often when I jump on and off FB, the CONSTANT contributors (regardless of time of day) are all adults. It makes me so sad when I think about what they’re NOT doing with their families because they’re too busy staring at a computer screen.

  • [email protected]:disqus ! You’ve cut me to the quick with that one. I am seriously revisiting my own behavior–especially how attached I am to my smartphone–when I am with my son. And [email protected]:disqus  commented, there is the potential for abuse, though that abuse isn’t assured. The firewall there is clearly the parent, because Facebook doesn’t care. So, yeah. It’s on me. 

  • Anonymous

    Personally, I wouldn’t be on Facebook if it wasn’t required by my business need to network. I don’t like how they do business. Like you said, they have a great potential for damage, but that doesn’t equate damage being done. Still, I don’t trust Facebook to not do the damage sooner, rather than later.

    These last two posts keep bringing the movie “Minoriy Report” to mind…. For some reason. 😉

    Thanks for a great thought-provoking post! 🙂

  • Hi Tom,
    I don’t think your over reacting exactly – I’m certainly with you part way.  I am one of those “younger” demographics.  I was still at University when Facebook launched on UK campuses, and I’ve taken it with me through my working life.

    Facebook undoubtedly has the potential to change, but whether that change causes damage I’m not sure.

    What I’m more concerned about is the generation under mine, those babies that are more familiar with iPads than magazines – they are the ones that social media will have the real power with.  We might think Facebook has influence already, but when those toddlers are they’re old enough to own their own mobile phone, they won’t think twice about updating their status.  It will be part of who they are.  That ingrained mindset will filter into businesses, and soon we won’t even think about time without social media.

    We’re focused so hard on protecting what we know I do worry that sometimes we don’t see the bigger picture.  Yes Facebook is a giant, but it’s our own attitudes that have driven it’s success.

  • From a small business perspective which is where I come from… There is an entire generation of consumers that will be major market segment for my business that will have known and used Facebook and social media their entire lives…

    Pretty wild, interesting and ultimately exciting thought from a “How Do We Drive Future Growth?” perspective…

  • There is almost nothing like it in the history of media–not for a single brand like Facebook.

  • Just so–Facebook tapped into a desire that was already there: to share things with people we already know. The hidden costs of this bargain are only beginning to reveal themselves. Thanks for commenting!

  • I don’t believe Facebook is evil, but anytime you and I are the products they are selling, we have an obligation to at least be aware, if not to actively question, what damage *could* be done. I am pretty agnostic about the whole thing, but I will continue to look at what we do and don’t know about that relationship. 

  • Like the underlying intention of (need for) Facebook to share those things with those people / companies we don’t know? 

  • Hi Michael, you raise a very interesting point here (one that started to be addressed in Mark’s blog that preceeded this post).  You are right, 99% of all houses have electricity and few of us are electrical engineers who understand not only how to balance load factors but also what’s behind the service at all! Like all other “utility” services, we as users are “protected” by the regulatory bodies who ensure we don’t get “hurt” by those things we don’t know or understand. Fundamentally, as the Facebook -like services expand worldwide and more users leverage them (as we do fundamental electricity, natural gas or phone services), regulatory agencies need to (and hopefully will) introduce usage regulations to protect the consumer from the “nasties” we’re all discussing here. Seeing FB go public is the first step for that happening as this puts it into an entirely new diminsion of visibility and oversight.

    We’re now seeing evidence of this happening in places like China and other reguatory strong jurisdictions. It’s only a matter of time before these attitudes move west…………

  • Hi Tom, there are some terrific comments here and I only want to add one point.  It would be interesting to know specifically how many of those users in the 12-17 age group are 12. They have registered for Facebook totally against the use terms.  If these people have “mislead” Facebook, how many others have done the same thing (for other reasons)? In other posts throughout the past few days, I’ve mentioned the importance of the regulatory impact of FB becoming a public company.  The need for authentication is one clear example and until the real regulatory bodies get their arms around this problem, 12 year olds (and likely younger) as well as other undesirables will continue to participate thereby fueling the very futuristic problems you are discussing. 

  • Great point, Steve – I’ll have to look into the data for that!

  • Tom,
    As a new father, I appreciate the concern and the threats associated with dragging today’s learned behaviors into future [family & professional] “responsibilities.”  As I’ve stated before, Facebook came along at a most convenient time; when, 1) so much of the world was without work and with plenty of time to focus on adopting and communicating via social media; and, 2) the 12-24 age group today is the only segment that 100% grew up with easy access to desktop computing…or, a setting and situation that played right into Facebook.

    With the proliferation of a wireless lifestyle and a control over media that requires fewer clicks and less time spent staring at screens, it is Facebook who should be most worried about the future…and its earnings calls. That isn’t a solely “mobile” statement related to smartphone and tablet usage, but a larger observation that we will return within 10 years to face-to-face and voice communication and that discourse that involves little to no textual content.

    My hands are tired from this comment already. 😉

  • Anonymous

    One consideration: kids don’t like to do what their parents do.  Facebook is today for social what Sears Roebuck was in the early-mid nineteenth century for retail.  Over the next few years it will diversify heavily, then divest non-core holdings, becoming something “only my grandma uses”.  Did I mention I’ll be the “grandma” by then?  

  • No you are not overreacting at all.  In fact,  it’s great that there are
    people like you who are willing to see the other side of all this.  I
    have HUGE privacy/anonymity concerns with social media so it’s a breath
    of fresh air every time someone is willing to show some caution or any at all. 

    I’m 26 and I actually don’t have facebook.  Well, I used to, but it
    really clashed with my personality.  I hated people (including my “fb
    friends”) knowing what I was saying, where I was going to be, looking
    through my pictures.  If I was fb stalking, then I’m sure people were
    doing it to me.  And while most people prob didn’t care, it would give
    me goosebumps.  So i deactivated and never looked back.

    It’s amazing that kids nowadays don’t know a world without social
    media.  FB didn’t exist until my freshmen year of college and even then,
    it wasn’t anything of a beast that it is today.  There needs to be more
    voices like ours that question our behaviors now before we get in a
    place where we can’t turn back.  Thanks for your work and speaking up!  I
    hope to read more from you.

  • A well-stated observation.  However, I wonder if the power that Facebook holds to create revolutions and change national views might also be used to their demise someday.  

    If/or when Facebook abuses its power by restricting peoples information, the social power that they helped to create will fuel against them.  This would come in the form of customer-driven changes in functionality or even allow a competitor to have a valid shot at taking market share away from them.  No company is perpetual.  Not even Facebook.

    The EdgeRank serves to assist you in getting the most value out of the content you read.  YOU control this by interacting more with the content you value most.  The way I see it the issue only comes if Facebook factors out your interaction in providing content.  

  • That’s a shocking finding, I think parents have to check their child activity if they got facebook profile.  I personally feel this is just starting we may notice some other drawbacks of facebook in coming time.

  • There is a definite concern over how Facebook uses the data we provide them.  And how far that can be spread through new functionality, applications etc (I’m not even going to get started on the Ticker!).  There’s no doubt about that.  But as users we do, at least in the first instance, need to take responsibility for our own data.

  • Jay writes: ”
    EdgeRank is Hearst or Murdoch with an algorithmic cloak.” Now, that is funny!  Given Murdoch’s current difficulties I am sure that he would have much rather used EdgeRank than having to steal cell phone data!

  • Steve, I was much taken by Carr’s book: The Big Switch in which he explicitly made the comparison between the dangers of warehousing electricity and information.  I will have to go back and read my notes again.

  • Hi Claire, although I do agree that we as users own the responsibility for our own data.  But, only a very, very small % of internet users actually understand this fact or are even capable of dealing with it.  If this business is truly to become mainstream (and it’s only at the very early stages), people must be protected from themselves.

    Asking a 13 year old to protect their data is like putting a bowl of candy in front of them and expecting them not to finish it off even though it’s not good for them.

  • The numbers lie., You aren’t looking at activity data. 75% of accounts do nothing each day. That is factual. 85% of all Facebook content is generated by 15% of the users. That is factual. For every facebook status update 173 SMS texts are sent. That is factual. Time spent on Facebook per person per day is down to 20 mins from 55 in april 2010. That is factual.

    So I seeing a network being used less on a personal basis and many accounts going unused.

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  • Greg Thomas

    Hello Tom, I have read you blog. 1st of all, I would like to thank you for sharing such a nice article. As being a business person and the owner of “http://test.masterseek.com” I appreciate your views. I think not only Facebook, but also Linkedin has become the most powerful way to communicate with your business partners and networks. I have done the same thing with my clients and business networks. Thanks for sharing this .. Love to see more from you.

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