Teens explain how they really use Snapchat and Instagram, and why Facebook still matters

Facebook already trying to 'out-Snap' Snap: Damodaran
Facebook already trying to 'out-Snap' Snap: Damodaran

Although Snapchat and Instagram are competing bitterly for ad dollars, teens have room for both of them on their phones. That's because they serve very different functions.

CNBC talked to 24 teens and young adults between the ages of 12 and 20 about their social media and app habits. The survey was mostly conducted through the teen-preferred communication medium of text messaging, although a couple did respond via email (after being prompted by their parents).

Here's what we found:

Snapchat vs. Instagram

The majority of teens ranked Snapchat and Instagram among their top three favorite apps. However, they serve two very different purposes in their lives.

Snapchat is more for communication with peers, like sharing something funny or sending a quick update note.

"With Snapchat, I like how instant it is," said 15-year-old Caelin. "I really like instant gratification so the fact that you can have such a quick conversation with someone is great."

Snapchat can also beget more honesty. "Snapchat is a good and convenient way to talk to friends (sharing pictures) but you can say things you would regret later because they disappear (I don't do that though)," said Catie, 13.

How Snap makes money
How Snap makes money

On the other hand, Facebook-owned Instagram is more for sharing details about your personal life with friends and family, and is useful because everybody is on it -- not just other teens.

"I like Instagram because so many people I know are on it, like family and friends," said Kailey, 14. "It's a really good way to share pictures and moments as well as discover new things in art or technology and even news like politics."

18-year-old Harrison told us, "I feel that Instagram is still the most-used social media platform for people my age, and pretty much all of my friends use it on a daily basis. It's a great way for you to artistically share what you do day by day and and it allows you to keep up with what everyone is doing."

They use a "formal" messaging app for grown-ups

Teens had a wide variety of answers for their third-favorite app. Twitter and YouTube are both popular, as are music apps, particularly Spotify.

However, a full one-third of them mentioned some kind of messaging app, including Kik, their phone's built in messaging system (Android Messenger, Apple's iMessage, etc.), Facebook Messenger, ooVoo and Group Me.

Several told us that Snapchat was reserved for their peers, while they use other messaging apps only to communicate with adults.

"[Apple] iMessages are more formal and used a lot communicate with, in my case, adults such as my coaches, reminders from my teachers and my parents. For the most part my parents only know how to use that app as opposed to Snapchat. I appreciate it because it keeps my social life separate from my formal life," said Eliza, 16.

"I use Snapchat to talk to my friends mostly, no one really texts anymore unless it's to play the iPhone game Pigeon Games" said Sophia, 13. (She was referring to GamePigeon.)

Messenger is the new Facebook

While many of the older teens had Facebook accounts, it was seen as a way to communicate with family more than friends. One teen spoke about getting annoyed with the sharing of content he didn't agree with on the platform.

"I try to use apps that remove stress and connect me with people," said Mack, 19. "That's why I'm trending away from Facebook, as I find I see a lot of stuff on there that annoys me, hurting my relationships with people and adding stress."

But that doesn't mean they're leaving Facebook completely. In addition to Facebook-owned Instagram, many teens said they use Facebook Messenger, which they see as less invasive than giving someone your phone number, but which offers more real-time feedback.

"What I really like is on Messenger being able to see when the person was last active so I can gauge how soon I can expect the other person to respond," said Melanie, 18.

Some also liked Messenger as a faster way to talk to people with different brands of phones and because it's easy to add fun effects like digital stickers within messages.

"I don't have an iPhone and my regular text messaging is kind of slow, plus Messenger has a bunch of features like stickers, emojis, and Facebook games where you can challenge your friends in-message," said Helena, 18.

Privacy concerns start early

Most of the survey takers were highly concerned about their privacy online, with the ability for anyone to see what's on their account being a major concern. They actively sought out "customizable" apps that would allow them to control who saw what they were posting. Some had multiple accounts, including a public facing profile and another for closer friends.

"Since there are so many predators out there it's very important to make sure you have control over who is going to be seeing and reading what you post, especially with the capabilities to screenshot images," said Sophia, 13.

Others were concerned about where their personal information was going or the security of their account.

"Some apps ask for certain permissions that are questionable," said Franklin, 18.

Being an "early adopter" isn't as important

More than half of millennials (ages 20 to 36, according to Pew) are considered to be above average when it comes to new technology, according to an Experian study. But, it seems being an "early adopter" isn't as important to Gen Z (under 20).

Most of the survey takers said they preferred apps that their friends were already on rather than being the first to discover something.

"I don't like being the first one to have the app, because then it's defeats the whole purpose if you don't have someone to share it with," said Eliza, 16.

"I usually end up in the middle of the pack in terms of when I download an app, because it's only fun if you have friends that already have it," said Moira, 17.

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