My teenage nephews’ digital habits

One of my favorite activities as a startup founder is talking to customers or potential customers to understand how I can create something to make their lives easier. Now that I’m not working on anything specific, I’d still like to have some of these conversations and force myself to think about them. I was home in Los Angeles for Lunar New Year celebration, so I decided to casually chat with my 16-year-old twin nephews about their digital habits because every consumer startup seems to be trying to get their attention. I’d love to hear how their experiences compare with the teenagers in your life!

How do my nephews talk with their friends?

They mostly talk to their friends on Snapchat and Instagram. Ever since Instagram copied the stories feature, some of their friends moved over to Instagram, but Snapchat still retained a good amount. “I used to use Snapchat more when I was doing streaks,” is what one of my nephews said. For the uninitiated, here’s a Tweet about Snap streaks.

They also use the default Android Messages (texting), Facebook Messenger, and Discord (but they don’t play games or use the voice chat), depending on whom they’re trying to reach. This doesn’t sound very different from what I do, but it is way less convenient compared to when everyone was on AIM and later, Gchat.

I saw on one of my nephews’ DMs that he takes advantage of groups. One that I saw was called “the Musketeers” and the other one was “key club.” I love that “key club” is being coordinated via group DMs because that’s definitely better than what we used to do without group messaging.

What surprised me was how much phone and FaceTime are being used. If they needed to get in touch with someone, they’d just call or FaceTime them. I assume calling would mean VoIP via any of the messaging apps or calling their actual phone number. My nephew told me that he uses his MacBook mostly to do homework and FaceTime because he doesn’t have an iPhone. This all sounds similar to what I did in high school, minus the FaceTime and VoIP calling, of course. Not having to save phone numbers and being able to FaceTime feels to me like a significant improvement, and from what I hear, talking to friends in-person is totally still a thing, despite the apocalyptic prognostications from the olds.

What about sharing more intimate thoughts?

I remember I had a Xanga and then a LiveJournal to broadcast my teenage angst. I didn’t really bother with limiting who could see my posts (they were public) since discoverability was relatively weak without a full-fledged social graph. I imagine that’s harder to do when you live in the Facebook world.

My nephews told me about “spam accounts” on Instagram (some called it “finstas”), but they professed that they didn’t have one 😏. Apparently some people would create “spam accounts” and only let their closest friends follow and that’s where the real feelings and interests are shared. There’s also a “close friends” feature on both Snap and Instagram that you can use. I knew about this phenomenon but I was skeptical about how much you can actually express on Instagram between feed posts, stories and DMs. Looking at my old LiveJournal posts, I shared a lot. A picture is worth a thousand words but sometimes I wrote more than a thousand. My nephews told me that you can make the texts really small, but still. They also said that sometimes you post something to hint that you’re feeling some kinda way, and the people who care will message you to talk more. Maybe that’s good enough.

How about self-expression?

I remember my Myspace had a music player playing my song of the moment complete with a custom theme and lots of pictures. That was how I tried to express myself. Instagram and Snapchat just seem infinitely better because they’re way more dynamic. Sure, Instagram filters make everyone’s life look awesome, but that’s exactly what we tried to do with Myspace. The only difference is that Instagram updates way more, making it a more realistic representation of the person. To that point, Snapchat’s stories feature was revolutionary because it made self-expression even faster and way more authentic than anything that had come before. I think teenagers today clearly have us beat in terms of their ability to express themselves.

How do they waste time?

The primary time-waster for my nephews is probably tapping through their friends’ stories. Outside of that, Instagram’s Explore tab is where my nephews get the basketball highlights and Internet memes to forward to their friends. They told me that they also watch the Discover content on Snapchat, which Instagram is trying to copy with IGTV but it’s not as good yet. They also waste time together with their friends posting stories with questions, polls, lenses, stickers, etc.

Having never thought much about consumer apps, the basic product strategy from these companies seems quite straightforward and similar to Facebook and the consumer web portals from the early web days. You aggregate different types of content (ephemeral, permanent, short-form, long-form, professional, semi-professional, social) to keep users in your ecosystem as long as you can, and you build out communication utility like text, voice, and video-calling to keep them there even longer. Open DMs are like email. Different lenses and stickers are like Yahoo! and Facebook Games and Quizzes. A Snapchat-commissioned show is like Yahoo! paying to livestream NFL games.

I had to ask about YouTube because I spend so much time on there and I was surprised it was never brought up. My nephews said that sometimes creators they follow would do a preview on Instagram and then send them to YouTube to watch the full clip, and that’s when they would go. They rarely go to YouTube otherwise and they don’t really follow any creators on YouTube. Gaming-wise, they told me Fortnite is for kids. Instead, they play Brawl Stars and Clash Royale (both Supercell games). They don’t use TikTok and neither does anyone else in their school, but they get a lot of TikTok content on Instagram. They have never heard of tbh or Houseparty.

Given that Fortnite is all the rage with kids and I for sure have seen another crop of teenagers in Taiwan obsessed with YouTube and TikTok, my nephews’ answers made me think that I’m stupid for expecting all teenagers to be roughly the same. Now I wonder if the Fortnite-playing population correlates with playing Minecraft when they were younger since it’s a First-Person Shooter. As far as YouTube and TikTok go, maybe because they’re not social, there’s no real reason to visit them if the best content are already getting ripped and shared to Instagram. This is why Facebook’s moat is extremely formidable.

What else?

When I asked my nephews what gifts they’d want me to buy them they said the iPhone, and the primary reasons are Facetime and…GamePigeon. On Android phones when their friends send them GamePigeon games it just looks like a link and it doesn’t work.

My sister has parental controls over their phones and that’s why they have a VPN, which sometimes lets them get around it. The device differences and parental involvement probably underscore the “not all teens are created equal” realization.

Finally, here’s a picture with my nephews!

Have you talked to teenagers about their digital habits? How do they compare to my nephews? Let me know!

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