Earlier this month Facebook’s chief financial officer, David Ebersam confirmed a worrying, but long-suspected trend for the world’s biggest social network: teenagers, perhaps the most important demographic for a modern-day communication tool, were becoming less active on the site.
“We did see a decrease in daily users, partly among younger teens,” Ebersam admitted, referring to usage numbers from the second to third quarters of 2013. Researchers at GlobalWebIndex, a market research group, recently confirmed this decline.
Having surveyed teenagers in 30 countries, they revealed that the number of teenagers claiming to be active on Facebook (ie. doing more than just “liking” a separate page on the web) had dropped to 56% in the third quarter of 2013, from 76% in the first.
The biggest decline in active usage (by 52%) was in the Netherlands; there was a 16% fall for American teens.
Where are they going instead? Not surprisingly, it’s mobile chat services like WeChat, and photo-sharing apps like Instagram and Snapchat.
What’s truly startling though, is how quickly global teenagers are taking up the services instead:
The latest research from GlobalWebIndex, out Tuesday and with the accompanying graphic above, shows that Chinese messaging platform WeChat has seen the most rapid growth in active users aged between 16 and 19 — by an incredible 1,021% — between the first and second quarters of this year.
The other big wins have been for video sharing app Vine, owned by Twitter, and the mobile app for photo-sharing app Flickr. Active teen users for Vine grew by 639% and for Flickr by 254%, according to research group’s estimates.
“There is a very clear story with the big winners being closed messaging and video-and-photo sharing apps,” said Tom Smith, CEO of GlobalWebIndex. “This is something that could be particularly harmful to Facebook because its core value lies in peer-to-peer community, messaging and photo sharing.”
Even Facebook Messenger is seeing more active usage (an 86% increase), than Facebook itself, where teenage active users fell by 17% in the same period, according to the estimates. Instagram saw an 85% increase in active users and messaging tool WhatsApp saw an 81% growth. Tumblr also saw some growth in active users, but by a relatively-low 30%.
“There is a clear, definitive shift to mobile in general,” said Smith, “underlined by a large rise in Facebook’s mobile app, [up 69%], so the composition of Facebook is changing.”
The teen trend towards mobile chat apps should have less of an impact on Twitter, Smith added, because Twitter plays a greater role in accessing real-time news, interacting with TV or following celebrities. Even Google+ seems to be better insulated than Facebook because it is associated with broader networks and content.
Despite the huge growth in active users of WeChat, most teens in the U.S. and Western Europe still aren’t using it, though anecdotally, it is said to be popular among young people in Chinese communities. The real growth for the service is in China, where WeChat is based, and parts of South East Asia. The messaging app, which claims more than 250 million monthly active users, is owned by the Chinese Internet giant Tencent, which claims 800 million active users for its instant messing service for desktops. WeChat is the English-language version of the company’s original Chinese-language chat app, WeiShin.
“We launched different branding and different back-end servers in other locations,” said Tencent President Martin Lau while on stage at the GMIC mobile conference in San Francisco last month, adding that Tencent was customizing WeChat for local audiences in each country. Lau, who was previously one of the key bankers at Goldman Sachs that helped take Tencent public in 2004, said WeChat was targeting Italy, Mexico and Brazil as key areas for expansion, and that the U.S. was “a tough market.”
“But we do have an office here and a team who are trying to think about how we can do [things] differently in the U.S.,” he added.
How is WeChat capitalizing on its popularity with teenage users? One way is by setting up physical vending machines, selling soft drinks. It’s all part of a broader experiment by Tencent to set up a payment mechanism within WeChat. Tencent partner Ubox recently set up 300 WeChat vending machines in Beijing’s subway stations where WeChat users could get discounted drinks by paying with their chat app.
“Those are experiments at this point,” said Lau, “but over time as the mobile Internet ties in with people’s lives more closely there will be more opportunities.”
Still, Lau doesn’t see mobile messaging platforms like WeChat canabailizing social networks like Facebook in the same way social networks ate through instant messaging. Mobile messaging through platforms like WhatsApp or KakaoTalk involve communicating with a smaller group of people that end users typically already know in real life; they’re privy to their mobile numbers after all.
“They’re both social, but address two very different user cases,” he said. “They can actually coexist.”
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