Decades of developmental psychology research suggest that people have different social needs at different stages of life. Understanding why people use social media differently at different ages can provide considerable insight.
Corporations could get more value if they paid more attention to this research. This outline of developmental stages and their psychosocial needs draws on E. H. Erikson’s Identity and the Life Cycle (International Universities Press, 1959) and B. M. Newman and P. R. Newman’s Development Through Life: A Psychosocial Approach (Thompson Wadsworth, 2011):
Early adolescence, ages 13-18:
Peer Pressure: Successfully identifying with a peer group.
Because teenagers are focused on social relationships but highly sensitive to opinions of their peers, marketers may want to think twice about trying to get teenagers to “like” a product or brand. MRI studies of teenagers’ brains show that their fears of having their preferences broadcast to their peers are real, primal and often more salient than actual bodily risk.
These psychosocial characteristics may explain the success of new platforms like Snapchat, a photo sharing service that deletes messages seconds after they are viewed. While adults think teenagers use these platforms primarily for “sexting,” the truth is more likely that teenagers simply favor a platform that does not broadcast their experiences to the world and preserve them forever.
College-age adolescence (ages 18-24):
Role Experimentation: Exploring personal and professional identities.
This age group is trying to figure out who they are and who they will become. While many social media platforms may be well-suited to tracking the people and experiences connected with their identity, few support social experimentation that is so crucial to college-age people.
It is somewhat surprising that no company has moved more successfully into the space that Facebook abdicated years ago — a dedicated social media platform exclusively for college students. Such a platform meets an important social need of late adolescents, and could provide an important environment for marketers looking to target this impressionable demographic with edgier campaigns. Current popular social media platforms may discourage the type of experimentation, as parents have joined these platforms and future employers can track their digital records.