The Digital Leadership Interview #3 – How teens use social media and their digital devices

I am interested in communication and how human beings talk to each other. Over the past few years I’ve read several blog posts and research articles about how teens communicate online. However, all of the articles I have found are about teens from the US. As a Swede based in London who works all over the world I decided to have a chat with teens outside the US to learn more.

Often, those who wish to make predictions about the future say that we must look at how teens are using their mobiles, tablets and computers to understand how we should shape our digital future. This is my contribution. To get to know more about teens and how they use digital tools to communicate, I interviewed Felicia, 16, and Leo, almost 16, both from Gothenburg, Sweden. This is not an academic study or the like; this is just a discussion about how teens use social media today. I hope to be able to interview more teens around the world this year.

My digital story

I spent my teenage years chatting and gossiping with my friends over the phone for at least two hours a day. I watched Beverly Hills 90210 and I loved the TV series Twin Peaks. I got my first Hotmail address when I was about 20 years old and my first mobile phone a year later. I grew up in the analog era and, honestly, I have no idea how we survived without a mobile phone. My mother and I once arranged to meet in Gothenburg city centre at 15.30 and forgot to say where. Luckily we both managed to guess where the other might be and we found each other at 15.45. Now, with mobile phones, I think we manage to locate people more easily, but we are also still a bit lazy about planning exactly where to meet. These days I use my iPhone every day. I share updates on my social networks daily, I have a blog and a website and it helps me to stay in touch with people. One of my digital problems are all the emails I get, I get far too many.

So, here are the interviews. They took place at the end of 2013 and the beginning of 2014 at different locations. I’ve merged the answer and have also translated the interview into English to make it available to a wider audience.

In short, here are my conclusions: 

  • Teens around 16 years of age are getting back to basics and want more meaningful interactions with the friends they meet up with in real life.
  • Teens send loads of text messages and group text messages.
  • Music online is super important.
  • Snapchat is driving conversations.
  • Teens want social media networks and digital devices to be fun and easy to use.

You can listen to a summary on my YouTube Channel

How do you use your mobile phone?

Leo: I use it to make calls, send texts, listen to music on Spotify and for Instagram and Snapchat. I am not using Facebook at the moment.

Felicia: I use my phone as an alarm clock in the morning, I listen to music all the time, texting, of course, some phone calls, but not that many, Snapchat and I check Facebook.

Sofie says:“It looks as though teens are using their mobiles more as a phone now. They are going back to basics. They want to stay in touch with their friends and keep track of what’s going on. Snapchat has almost turned into a new text messaging service.”

If you compare how you used your mobile and computer a few years ago with how you use them today, what’s different?

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Leo: My friends and I, we are almost only using text messages via WhatsApp groups and Snapchat. That’s how we communicate now. And I also use Skype to stay in touch. I play more online games and it’s a fun way to stay connected. At the moment, I’m not using Facebook, sometimes I check it out, but I only change my profile photo like once a year. I think Facebook was more fun when I was younger.

Felicia: I use Instagram and Facebook less now. I feel it’s more important to be close to my friends. Texting and Snapchat are great ways to keep in touch. I love calling people I know and I am much better at sending texts now compared with a few years ago. If I could I would only call people, but texting them is so easy. I am much more chilled online today compared with a few years ago.

Sofie says: “If a social media network does not give teens really interesting information and meaningful connections with people they know then they’ll tune out. This is a problem that many companies selling products and services to teens have noticed.” 

What’s so good about Snapchat?

Leo: It’s fun and quick, people are more quirky on Snapchat, you are more likely to send something stupid to a friend if you know it’s not going to be saved somewhere. It feels safe.

Felicia: It’s fun and easy, you are just sending quick images and messages to each other which won’t be saved.

Sofie says: “It seems to me that it’s the surprise element and short availability that makes Snapchat fun. We all want to watch fun things online and by simply making them available to watch only for a short period we are building up the excitement.” 

When you were younger, were your parents and other adults around you nervous about what you did online?

Leo: Not really, I only played games online when I was younger and then started to use Facebook. They didn’t know exactly what I was doing online and they weren’t too worried.

Felicia: Yes, they were. I started with MSN and an image journal. Then I moved onto Facebook. Sometimes they would look over my shoulder and try to see what I was up to. Then, after a while, they relaxed and trusted that I wouldn’t connect with any weird people.

I have been running social media workshops for young people who are about to apply to university in the UK and one thing we have worked on is their online profile and how they want to be seen online. Do you think about the digital shadow you leave online?

Leo: I am aware of this and I know that what I share online can be saved there forever. I mostly use my digital devices to stay in touch with my friends, and I don’t share many posts online, so there is not a big risk of me leaving a bad digital shadow online.

Felicia: No, not really. But, at the same time, I don’t share images and messages online that can be seen as offensive. In general I don’t upload that many posts. I think it’s more fun to follow people and friends online.

Sofie says: “Your future employers, clients and partners will google you and read your online profile to see what it says about you. In some countries, such as the UK, it is normal to google and research people online. In Germany it’s not allowed for employers to google the people they are planning to employ which protects their privacy. This law may not always be followed, of course, but there might be legal cases in the future in which someone claims that they didn’t get a job because they were googled! I believe this will be more regulated in the future, what’s okay to google and what’s not okay to google. 

Have you recorded and uploaded any videos to YouTube?

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Leo: I used to do that when I was younger, but not anymore. I am not sure what I would make a film about. I used to use Keek for videos a few years ago, but not anymore. If I decided to film a video I might use Instagram or Snapchat.

Felicia: Yes, I’ve done that, but I don’t have a YouTube account myself.

Which email provider do you use?

Leo: Hotmail and Gmail.

Felicia: Hotmail.

If anyone contacted you about a summer job or something similar, how would they get hold of you? For example, if they wanted to share some important information about a training event you needed to attend.

Leo: Email would be best. I have it on my mobile, so I would see it’s there.

Felicia: I don’t check my email that often, but if I were going to start a job I would check it then. I always have my mobile with me, so I would check it there.

If I sent some really important information to you, where would you prefer that I sent it?

Leo: Email.

Felicia: My email, probably. If I am expecting to receive important updates I would check my email more often.

Sofie says: “When you send out important information you need to send it as an email. Teens and adults keep important emails, but information in social media can easily be filtered out by other messages and updates.”

If anyone you know chose to stay outside all social media networks what would you think about them? And how would you connect with them?

Leo: I would send them a text message or call them. It would only be a problem if I didn’t have their mobile number and they were not on Facebook.

Felicia: That’s not a biggie, it would be ok. I could still text and call them. I’ve myself been considering whether I should leave Facebook and Instagram because I think the information is repeating itself. Nothing much new comes up.

Sofie says: “I think having a Facebook account can be equal to a phone number sometimes, it’s a way to connect and share information.”

What would you do if someone left a mean comment on your wall or update stream?

Leo: I would just ask them what was going on the next time I met them, just have a chat with them. I want to have fun online, not argue.

Felicia: I would comment back, I think, ask what it’s about. And it does depend on what kind of comment and why they did it – if it’s a joke or if it’s a genuine mean comment about me. If they wanted to hurt me I would try to speak to them and see what’s going on. Or, if it feels like it’s not worth it, I would just ignore it. If you have something to say to someone you should say it to their face, not online. People who make mean comments online do it because they have nothing better to do with their time.  It’s very easy to write something mean online, but very few people would dare to say these things in real life.

Sofie says: “I’ve had people write mean and weird comments on my social profiles a few times and I’ve asked them over email or via a message to stop and that helped. Also, I deleted their comment. I told them that I would remove them from my network if they wrote any more strange things.”

Do you play many social games online?

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Leo: Yes, almost every day. I keep in touch with my friends after school by doing that. It’s fun to play with them and we’ve been playing for about three years now. When I am gaming with them online I get to know them better. Next year when I change school I wonder which online gaming platforms my new school mates will use.

Felicia: I haven’t properly started to play games, and I’m not prioritizing games at the moment. I love to play online games, but I’m not doing it right now.

Sofie says: “Getting to know people better online can be extremely valuable when you meet up in real life. You will have more things to talk about. Never neglect that. Online games are interactive and if you play you are fulfilling part of your social needs.”

For those of you who are not familiar with online games, you can play online social games using loads of digital devices such as iPad, Google Android smartphones, iPhone, your PC, PlayStation, Nintendo, Wii and Xbox. You connect with your friends online and then you start playing together.

Are you using WhatsApp? 

Leo: Yes, I use it a lot. In my class we have a group and if something is happening we send out a message to everyone. It’s our private group.

Felicia: I removed it, and now I mostly use iMessage on my iPhone. I had too many Apps on my phone which made it too slow. I have organised my contacts into groups and it’s easy to text them.

Sofie says: “There are thousands of private groups on WhatsApp that only include friends with certain interests. These interests can be a particular movie, a sport or an event. Only the people in a specific group will get the message. It’s quick and easy. I’m using WhatsApp with some of my friends and it’s perfect to share only with them. As long as you have 3G or wifi you are okay, it can be annoying if you don’t.”

Are there many people in your online network that you’ve never met?

Leo: I used to have some strangers in my networks, people I just added when we met online, but now I only hang out online with people I know in real life.

Felicia: No, not at all. I know and have met all of them, but, of course, some of my Facebook friends just go to the same school as me.

Sofie says: “We all have different personalities and styles and some of us are introverts and others are more extroverted. How we like to share online is really up to each of us. There are many good online practices you can learn about if you would like to be seen as a star online. It’s about practicing and getting to know your friends and what they enjoy hearing about. I’ve made some great connections online using Twitter and LinkedIn and it has really helped me several times.”

When we do things online it’s important that it’s fun and that we feel we are part of the group. When we feel that we belong somewhere we will go back. I think this is a universal phenomenon, and that will steer the destiny of which social online networks that will survive.

Thank you, Felicia and Leo, for sharing how you use social media and your digital devices with me!

Sofie Sandell