Youth Vs Adults: Strong Ties/Weak Networks

The kids are all about social media. They’re publishing content, streaming video and Twittering wildly. Right?


Just as social media practitioners use and view these tools differently to the general population, we need to remember that young people use these tools differently to us. They’re informed about the tools but while they’re highly active online, we we can’t just assume that “social media tools” are the way to reach them.

Young people ≠ adults

This weekend I attended the inaugural PodCamp London in southern Ontario where Jonathan Kochis ran a fascinating session on Youth, Social Media and the Web, running through some key research around the ways young people use social media. 

A few key points of difference between young people and adults:

  • 88 per cent of teens have participated in online social activity, however their use is driven by friendship and existing connections.
  • Many adults use social media tools to organize events; to build their networks; to promote themselves or their work. Teens don’t care about any of those uses.
  • Teens skew towards MySpace and Facebook. Tools like LinkedIn (business networking) and Twitter skew much older.
  • Young people can see Twitter as Facebook’s news feed with most of the features stripped out. As a result, few teens use it.
  • Tools like LinkedIn and Twitter require an investment in time to gain gratification (establishing a network, creating value for others, delayed rewards). Meanwhile, teens look for instant gratification.

Talking with Jonathan and others after the session, I reflected that much of the difference in perspective, along with these other factors, comes down to the nature of our networks.

Professional adults (successful ones, anyway) look to build their networks. They’re constantly meeting new people, learning, and sharing knowledge. We develop new connections all the time, but many of these are loose – passing meetings at a conference, conversations at parties, conversations over coffee or dinner. Over time we work to make some become stronger, but most remain loose. We have what I call “thin networks.”

Young people, meanwhile, don’t care about developing a “network.” They care about their friends – what they are doing, where they are, what they’re planning to do at the weekend. They have a small network, built on existing relationships and full of strong ties.

Twitter ≠ Facebook

This may explain why Twitter skews much older than Facebook.

Of course, Facebook started with the university crowd which explains part of the younger skew, but it also allows more in-depth connection with people. You can see everything your friends are doing – the events they’re attending, the photos they’re posting, the videos they’re watching and the people they’re talking to.

Twitter, meanwhile, is much more transitory. Conversations come and go, as do connections (it’s much easier to follow someone on Twitter than to add a friend on Facebook). It’s very top-level and, on the surface, one-dimensional (just short messages; no multimedia aside from links to it). For people with small networks who are already closely connected to their friends, Twitter doesn’t (currently) solve a problem. 

This isn’t a bad thing. What’s more, it’s certainly not a universal picture – there are certainly plenty of young people using Twitter. However, in general, I think it’s a useful reminder for us that “we” are not “they” and we can’t generalize our use of social media tools to the broader population.

So what?

Why should public relations pros and marketers care about this?

Because it has a clear and important effect on our communications programs. Twitter may be taking over the world, but only in some demographics. Meanwhile, if you’re trying to reach young people through Twitter or through an approach relying on volume of connections rather than quality of connections, you may be disappointed.

What other differences do you see between young peoples’ and adults’ use of social media?

(Side note: congratulations to Bill, Will, Titus and everyone else involved in PodCamp London. Great job, guys)

Dave Fleet
Managing Director and Head of Global Digital Crisis at Edelman. Husband and dad of two. Cycling nut; bookworm; videogamer; Britnadian. Opinions are mine, not my employer's.