Ignore every guru, ninja, or so-called expert. If you want to understand how people really use social media, spend some time with a pink-wearing, puppy-loving 10-year-old girl.
I had the pleasure of conducting such an informal study recently, with a niece who I'll call Annie (her name is changed to protect her privacy). My long weekend with her in Toronto, along with her 14-year-old sister who I'll call Rebecca, offered a glimpse into an overwhelmingly digital life centered on a mobile device -- in a world where Facebook and Twitter were completely missing. Here is how they use technology:
Facebook. Annie's too young for it and has no interest joining it yet. Rebecca thinks it's creepy.
Vine. Annie and Rebecca love watching Vine videos. They can talk at length about the latest antics of Jerome Jarre, a Vine celebrity. Their mother, sharp as she is, found their conversation hard to follow. I earned some major "cool uncle" points here, especially having researched Vine for other columns.
Snapchat. Annie and Rebecca love Snapchat. This concerned their mother, not because she heard about the dangers of it but because she wasn't familiar with it. The sisters like taking pictures, drawing on them, sharing them with a few close friends and letting them disappear. Kids don't want everything they create to hang on their family fridge forever. Snapchat is more like a passed note or doodle that the friend laughs at and throws out -- not because it's provocative, but because it's meant for certain people in a certain moment, and those moments pass. Annie and Rebecca are selective about friending only people they know, minimizing the likelihood of them seeing anything they shouldn't.
Skype. Annie used to have her own account to communicate with a few friends and family members. Then she stopped, forgot her username and switched e-mail addresses so she couldn't recover the password. I helped her get a new account. At first, we made the mistake of entering her real birthday, and then it blocked her because she was too young. We restarted the process, fudged her age, and she's now ready to Skype again.
Instagram. Annie and Rebecca both have Instagram accounts that are private. Still, some less savory characters will try to follow them. That's a cost of them using social media, and a significant one, though the girls will accept connections only from friends and family, and their mother is actively involved in setting up guardrails.
Mobile apps. I was surprised by the home screen of Annie's iPod Touch, with its spread of all the default apps. Annie didn't bother to customize it. On the second screen, she organized seven folders of other apps. Here are highlights:
Makeover Games. One of Annie's favorite mobile games, Hair Salon 2, resides in this folder; she's also into Minecraft, the puzzle game Flow and Campus Life (description: "throw parties with the best girls on campus as you build your own sorority house!"). The Makeover Games folder also houses Sephora's app.
Utilities. These are mostly default iOS apps, along with Netflix and
Photography. Snapchat, Instagram and Vine are here. The rest are mostly photo editing tools. There's no separate social-media folder. One standout in this set is Old Fart Booth, from the makers of Baldy, Fatty, Uglify Me and Pimp My Cat. As I'm in my 30s, I count as an old fart already, so Annie didn't have to use that on me. She did, however, give me a virtual makeover.
Food Games. One app is More Breakfast, where you virtually cook a meal. The other is Starbucks. Yes, Starbucks and Sephora both count as games for this 10-year-old. That's high praise from her.
Brands are games, media disappear and celebrities star in six-second shorts. It's amazing how much can change so quickly. Annie and Rebecca hardly have cemented their behaviors, but these building blocks can shape what they expect from media in the decades ahead.