“Do it for the ‘gram!”, teenagers used to yell with glee before they took a risky picture at the edge of a mountain or got soaked trying to pose in front of an upcoming wave at the beach. From beauty influencers, frequent travelers, and lifestyle bloggers to professional chefs, business figures, and cute animals, Instagram was where all the cool kids hung out. However, does that hold true still, especially when it comes to teenagers? Turns out, it is not.
Let us have a quick look at why Instagram is struggling with the fear of losing its teenage users, what might have contributed to it, and what it can do to retain its young users.
The Internal Panic of Instagram
When Facebook acquired Instagram for $1 billion back in 2012, it was shocking to many. However, in the years that followed, the visual platform had a rapid growth and became responsible for over $20 billion in the annual revenue of Facebook. One of the biggest reasons for Facebook to acquire Instagram was that it was widely popular among teenagers at the time, and they considered Instagram to be a growth engine for them to reach a younger audience.
The social media landscape has changed drastically since then. There are a lot more platforms that allow their users to create visual content in creative, engaging, and exciting ways. Moreover, the algorithms of Instagram often favor users with sponsored posts and professionally shot and edited images, which made young users become skeptical about the authenticity of the platform. This made them look for alternate visual platforms which felt more authentic to them.
According to internal documents acquired by The New York Times, Instagram is worried about the rapidness with which they are losing teenagers, a user base they consider as the “pipeline” to get newer and younger users into their other platforms such as Facebook, Facebook Messenger, and Whatsapp.
Their response to this has been significantly increasing their advertising budgets (close to 400 million a year) to specifically target teenagers and pre-teens. One of the most targeted age groups by Instagram is the 13-15-year-olds that they called “early high school”, which is problematic, especially in the aftermath of the testimony of Frances Haugen, a Facebook whistleblower who revealed at a Senate hearing that the company is aware of the body image issues they cause especially among teen and pre-teen girls, but they continue to deliberately target them.
The Viral “Elephant in The Room”—TikTok
Just four years after its launch, TikTok reached its coveted 1 billion user mark in 2021. It took Facebook 8 years to achieve this and about 7.7 years for Instagram to get there. TikTok’s userbase is predominantly young GenZ-ers, while Facebook, Instagram, and many other popular social media platforms have an aging userbase of Millennials and Gen X. According to an analysis from CNBC, teenagers simply find TikTok to be funnier and more positive than other social media platforms including Instagram. Moreover, due to the seamless algorithm of the TikTok feed, any user can amass millions of views organically as long as their content is able to entertain TikTok users in some way.
Another important aspect of the attraction teenagers has towards TikTok is that they consider it to be more authentic. The culture in the TikTok user community prefers to get their content from authentic users who are truly themselves, rather than seeing perfectly edited and sponsored content that is often seen on Instagram. Simply put, teenagers believe that they can be their real selves on TikTok and even on Snapchat when compared to Instagram.
What Can Instagram Do to Retain Teenagers?
In mid-2022, as we write this article, Instagram (2 billion monthly active users) still towers over other trendier social media platforms such as TikTok (1 billion monthly active users) and Snapchat (500 million monthly active users) when it comes the overall user base. When it comes to teens and preteens, however, video-based apps such as TikTok and YouTube are far more popular among them.
There are several ways Instagram has tried to compete with its rivals by replicating some of its popular features. They introduced Snapchat-like “Instagram Stories” which became quite popular on the platform, and “Instagram Reels” is quite similar to the short videos on TikTok.
Ultimately, however, the approach to retain young users in Instagram should come from a place of restoring authenticity to the platform as well as changing the algorithm in a way that quality content gets higher reach organically without the users having to pay for it. Here’s to hoping that Instagram would engage in some deep self-reflection and change itself for the better fundamentally to attract teenagers, rather than copying trendy features from other popular platforms and spending high advertising budgets trying to target them.
Instagram remains to be one of the most impactful and popular social media platforms at present. With the highly visual nature of the platform and the simple interface that encourages users to constantly engage with the content, it is no surprise that Instagram has one of the highest monthly active users of any social media platform.
Lately, however, it has started losing its younger user base. This is mostly due to the rise of inauthentic content by influencers to promote products and that teenagers tend to prefer more video-based platforms such as TikTok. Instagram will be able to gain back the trust of its pre-teen and teen users by creating a more authentic culture within the platform, having an algorithm that does not highly favor sponsored content, and making it easier to post video-based content.