Why Don't Teens Tweet? We Asked Over 10,000 of Them.

This guest post is written by Geoff Cook, cofounder and CEO of social networking site myYearbook. Everything about Twitter is looking up these days, except for a few pesky uptime issues of course. But a number of recent reports also suggest teens are one demographic that just doesn’t seem to be embracing Twitter like the rest of us. So while I’m excited to see Robert Scoble proclaims that Twitter is worth a cool $10 billion, it might be a good idea to analyze a little data to try to understand why teens just don’t think Twitter is as rad as the rest of us.

Over the last few months everyone has weighed in on the question of “Why Don’t Teens Tweet” — except, it would appear, teens. We recently ran a survey of 10,000+ US teens aged 13 – 17 to see if we could add anything new to the question. As it turns out, the question itself is flawed.

To date, reasons given for the alleged aversion of teens to Twitter have ranged from the condescending “Because they have nothing to say,” to the responsible “Because it doesn’t feel safe,” to the Letterman-like “Because they can’t afford it” — at least without a mobile data plan.

Of course, all of these reasons are predicated on the widely accepted notion that “Teens Don’t Tweet” — that there is a phenomenon that needs to be explained. As recently as last week even, the New York Times cited the fact that only 11% of Twitter is teen as evidence of Twitter’s unpopularity to that group.

The implication is that 11% is a small number, but if we look deeper, it turns out that Twitter has a higher concentration of teens than Facebook. You can see in the chart below that Facebook is only 9% teen, so Twitter is actually more teen than Facebook, which rightly has never been perceived as having a “teen problem.” Facebook has so many users that teens just can’t be that large a percentage of the service, by definition.

Nielsen also suggested that “Teens Don’t Tweet” in a report that was destined to become a trending topic on Twitter itself. Almost as quickly as it came out, a number of bloggers, including Danah Boyd, debunked the study for charting the age group 2 – 24 and yet drawing conclusions about teens, noting there are not too many 2-year-olds on Twitter.

To be sure, the truthiness of the headline “Teens Don’t Tweet” is persuasive. It really does feel true, and on one level it is: the vast majority of teens don’t tweet. Of course, the vast majority of the adult population doesn’t tweet either.

As it turns out, teens actually tweet more than the general population, prompting Silicon Valley Insider to say yesterday, “Kids Don’t Hate Twitter Anymore.” According to comScore, Twitter’s unique visitor composition index in the 12 – 17 age group is 118 (a value over 100 represents a higher concentration of unique visitors from that age group as compared to the age group’s concentration across the entire web). More interestingly, Twitter’s 12 – 17 composition index of 118 is higher than its composition index in the 25 – 34 and 35 – 44 age groups. The bottom line: Twitter actually skews more teen than the average site, and much more teen than Facebook.

Similarly, the teens who visit Twitter do so 5.2 times per month, more often than users aged 25 – 44, who visit fewer than 5 times per month.

But, there is a lot more to the story than widespread misinterpretation of data. After all, why don’t the majority of teens tweet? The issue of teens and Twitter first got legs when Morgan Stanley published an influential report written by Matthew Robson, a 15-year-old intern from the UK, which became an instant hit. Here is the reason the report suggested that teens don’t tweet:

Most have signed up to the service, but then just leave it as they realize that they are not going to update it (mostly because texting twitter uses up credit, and they would rather text friends with that credit).

To validate this explanation, we ran a survey asking thousands of US teens whether text messaging charges have anything to do with whether or not they use Twitter, and over 90% said: “No — I wouldn’t use Twitter anyway.” (Note: unlimited texting plans are common in the US, whereas the Morgan Stanley report was written from the perspective of a UK teen.)

Robson also observed his friends and classmates in the UK signing up for the service and then never using it again, a pattern that proves very similar in the US. In fact, in our survey, we found that 45% of teens aged 13 – 17 who have a Twitter account don’t tweet. Most send a few and stop altogether, and 17% never sent a single one.

Similarly, we looked into the idea that maybe teens are turned off by Twitter’s openness and consider it unsafe. We found no support for this hypothesis either, with almost no one citing “It’s too open” or “It’s not safe” as reasons they don’t use Twitter, as the chart below shows.

So why? Why doesn’t Twitter engender passion in even most of the teens who take the plunge and sign up for an account? The answer lies in the reasons teens do use Twitter. Of teens with a Twitter account, the top 4 reasons cited for using the service are, in order:

  • Update My Status
  • Keep Up With My Favorite Musicians, Bands, or Celebrities
  • Stay Current with What’s Going On in the World
  • Keep Up with Friends I Know

If we break down those top reasons one by one, a clearer picture emerges of why Twitter is not more popular among teens.

  • Teens already update their status religiously on other sites like Facebook, MySpace, and myYearbook.
  • Teens use MySpace to keep up with musicians and celebrities, which MySpace differentiates on.
  • As a group, teens are not major consumers of news from any outlet, making “staying current” a poor driver of mainstream adoption — though of course there are exceptions.
  • Teens use both MySpace and Facebook to keep up with friends they know.

Given the above, it is no surprise that teen penetration is not higher. The value proposition of Twitter to the majority of teens is the issue.

No doubt, this is why most teens describe Twitter as “not for me”, and also why most teens who are not on Twitter cite the generic reason why as “Because it’s lame.” Twitter doesn’t help most of them do anything new, so to them, it is lame. Of course, for those teens who are celebrity hounds or compulsive news followers, or those looking for an audience for their status updates, Twitter is invaluable.

But now we have come full circle. Most teens don’t use Twitter because it doesn’t enable them to do anything they can’t already do elsewhere, which is the same reason most adults don’t use Twitter. It has nothing to do with any teen-specific concerns like texting plans or safety. It comes down to something more simple: delivering value beyond Facebook and MySpace — a competitive moat that Facebook is bridging one move at a time, from the Everyone button to the acquisition of FriendFeed to the centrality of the stream itself.

The question of “Why Don’t Teens Use Twitter?” is the question of “Why Doesn’t Everyone Use Twitter?” The answer, it would seem, is both obvious and heretical … maybe Twitter isn’t for everyone.

Additional Teens & Twitter Survey Results:

Disclaimer: Here is some more info on the panel of teens we surveyed. We don’t claim the 10,000+ survey results represent the definitive survey of teens in the US. We do, however, claim that our users look very much like the users of other social networks and that our audience overlaps significantly with MySpace, Facebook, and Twitter, and that the insights of myYearbook teens may be useful to this analysis.