School's Out: Are Students Taking a Pass on Facebook?

Experts Look for Answers as School Affiliations Decline, Yet Student-Age Users Continue to Grow

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BATAVIA, Ohio (AdAge.com) -- A funny thing happened amid the explosive growth of Facebook: Sometime between January and July, about 900,000 high-school students and 1.6 million college students appeared to have gone missing from the site.

It's unclear -- doubtful even -- that the students actually stopped using Facebook. The network's own data and third-party ComScore data show users under 18 and 18-to-24 age groups continued to grow through the period. But Facebook data for advertisers show the number identifying themselves as being in high school dropped 17%; those identifying themselves as college enrollees plummeted 22%.

What gives? Focus-group accounts and anecdotal evidence, reported by a handful of marketing bloggers and agency executives, suggest one possible explanation for the disappearance of school affiliations: users are hiding aspects of their identity as parents, grandparents, teachers, would-be employers and other authority figures proliferate on the site. These execs suggest that contrary to popular assumption, teens do care about privacy in the vast, unchecked world of social media.

Chicago-based marketing consultant Monica O'Brien recently recounted a teen focus group she moderated in which high-schoolers said they don't share much serious information on Facebook and rarely read their news feeds. One of the most often-used Facebook features for this set, along with basic features such as groups, events, walls, photos and chat? Privacy settings.

Wrote Ms. O'Brien on her blog: "[High-school] students hate to interact with 'weird people.' ... Teachers and coaches are okay, but only because privacy settings are available."

Other places to share
Ms. O'Brien said she believes teens may increasingly fulfill their urge to share sensitive personal stories at websites such as Fmylife.com, which has attracted 1.2 million to 1.5 million visitors in recent months according to Compete.com, with anonymous and often humorous or shocking anecdotes submitted and moderated by users.

Michael Stich, director-strategy at WPP's Bridge Worldwide, recently circulated Ms. O'Brien's post to clients, in part because he's hearing similar things from his own teen relatives. Bridge handles digital accounts for a number of package-goods brands, including Procter & Gamble Co.'s teen-oriented Pringles, with 4-million-member-plus Facebook fan page.

Teens may still technically visit Facebook, he said, or at least keep it open on their computers, but he believes many are sharing less personal information. Facebook may succeed commercially by appealing to adults or its original users as they age, Mr. Stich said, but become less useful for today's students.

The school-affiliation data were first reported on the ReadWriteWeb blog, based on data Facebook provides advertisers and archived by iStrategyLabs. A Facebook spokeswoman declined to confirm or deny the figures, but noted the company does make such data available to potential advertisers.

The drop in self-reported students in Facebook data may owe to comparing a winter month and summer month, after which many students have graduated. New students and school alumni should compensate, but declined at a similar pace between January and July. IStrategyLabs's Facebook data between June 2008 to July 2009, shows a similar trend -- the number of high-school- and college-aged users grew, while school affiliations dropped.

Mr. Stich believes recent improvements to Facebook's privacy settings may help assuage privacy concerns. "Being a teenager is about rebellion and finding your own way, and crafting your own identity that's away from your parents," he said. "That experimentation needs its own medium."

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