Facebook has a youth problem.
It's funny. The once-rogue operation created by teenagers in a dorm still touts its rebel hacker culture, with messages scrawled on walls, all-night coding marathons and plenty of Red Bull. The average age of Facebook employees is reported to be 28.
But those youth credentials don't matter anymore. The kids are flocking to other digital haunts. And investors are jittery. When Facebook's chief financial officer said recently that daily users, especially younger teens, had decreased in the quarter, the stock took a nose dive.
The company hasn't given up on the youth market. Far from it. It tried, and failed, to snap up Snapchat, the social media service, for $3 billion, according to reports last week. Last year, it plunked down $1 billion for Instagram, the mobile photo sharing application popular with teens. Facebook recently changed its privacy setting to expand the kinds of things 13-to-17-year-olds can do on the service.
These are good moves. The company should grab anything digital that is taking off. But one thing it should do — and fast — is allow kids under 13 to join, and then figure out how to cater to them.
Controversial, I know, but here's why it makes sense.
Facebook has created something that Mark Zuckerberg, the company's chief executive, says has become such a part of our lives that it's like a utility. The service's popularity has become self-propelling. The more folks we know on Facebook, the more time we spend on it. It's the network effect swelling to take in the entire planet.
But the digital tastemakers are young teens and tweens. Adolescents' social networks aren't on Facebook yet; they are still in the cafeteria and on the playground. Their digital identities are just forming. They text and Skype while they play online games and beg parents for access to smartphones and tablet computers to download apps and try out new ways of communicating. Lunchroom conversations are a mixture of real information and bluster about the pros and cons of things like Kik, WeChat, Tumblr, Snapchat and Instagram.
This is where Facebook struggles.
“Youth are not locked into any service and they can compare and contrast them,” said Zachary Reiss-Davis, an analyst at Forrester Research.
Facebook could open up its current service to tweens with special features and privacy settings. Or it could create a new, stand-alone site, a Facebook Jr., that would be a place for the firm to test features and figure out this market. “You have to get them on early and in the right way,” said Reiss-Davis.
The service would need to be parent-controlled and ad-free. And it should offer something new and riveting to entice preteens.
If kids could join Facebook, they “may be more likely to stay on Facebook and utilize it,” said Stephen Balkam, chief executive of the Family Online Safety Institute, which counts the site among its members.
Federal law creates more requirements for online firms to protect children's privacy, so most social networks simply prohibit children under 13.
But of course the truth is many kids still do join, with or without their parents' knowledge. A 2012 Consumer Reports survey found 5.6 million kids under 13 were on Facebook, down from 7.5 million in the prior year.
And critics of Facebook's current age limit argue there are already too many dangers. Opening it up to children, they say, exposes the most vulnerable in our society to one of the greatest personal data collection operation in history.
But the current setup is far from ideal for kids' safety. Preteens who set up a Facebook account have to lie about their age. If they say they are 29, or 99, they receive the least restrictive privacy settings, which means they are potentially exposed to more dangers. It would be better for them to have a way to participate but with necessary, age-appropriate protections.
And from a parent's point of view, I trust Facebook more than these fast-growing apps and features that haven't yet been raked over the coals by regulators and privacy advocates. With every privacy snafu, Facebook worries about losing users' trust and shareholder confidence. Those stakes make me feel better as a mother.
Of course, inviting tweens to join also exposes Facebook to more risks, and it's not clear if doing so will increase its cool factor. “Is that market worth the controversy,” wonders Scott Strawn, a program officer at IDC, the market research firm.
I would say yes. Facebook shouldn't want to be prematurely middle-aged, shaking its head and muttering, “Young people, what they do on the Internet, we don't understand it.”
Open the door to kids, Facebook, and test as many features as you can that capture tweens' imagination. Look for what taps into their digital egos and pray for hockey-stick growth. Then once you have their attention, wait a few years before trying to make money off them.