Facebook's Sheryl Sandberg insists reports of teen defections are overblown

So … is Facebook losing its appeal among teenage users, or not?

Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg seemed to answer, “No,” during a rare interview this week with the tech blog All Things D.  But she didn’t offer any numbers to back up her statement.

The question has been hovering over the world’s biggest social network for a while now, amid anecdotal stories and a few surveys that suggest teens are increasingly turning to newer social networks and messaging apps – not surprising since many teens like the idea of trying new and cool things, especially things that haven’t yet been discovered by their parents and teachers.

Many observers thought Facebook was finally acknowledging the trend during its quarterly earnings call last month, when Chief Financial Officer David Ebersman told analysts that, while Facebook visits by all U.S. teens remained stable, “we did see a decrease in daily users specifically among younger teens.”

Sandberg didn’t directly deny that statement, but she did her best to pooh-pooh it when she spoke with ATD’s Mike Isaac this week. This is what she said:

“So I think the reaction to that comment has been blown out of proportion.  As we said on the earnings call, overall U.S. teen usage of Facebook remains stable.  The vast majority of U.S. teens are on Facebook. And the majority of U.S. teens use Facebook almost every day.”

Sandberg went on to add this:

“One of the challenges we face right now is that we’re a decade old.  That means that we’re not the newest. And often, particularly in our space, newer things are shinier and cooler.  And what Mark (Zuckerberg) has said and what we all believe is that we’re not trying to be the coolest.  And we’re not trying to be the newest.  We’re trying to be the most useful.  I think if you look at the way teenagers continue to use Facebook, we are useful to them.”

But she didn’t offer any details.  And while Isaac is a dogged reporter, Sandberg managed to avoid saying much of substance when he asked her some other good questions, including one about rumors that Facebook had tried to buy the instant-messaging service Snapchat for $3 billion.

Sandberg doesn’t give a lot of interviews, and it’s not clear why she did this one.  One possibility is that Facebook decided it’s time to tamp down the concern over teen users.   Offering a different view, the SF Chronicle’s Caleb Garling suggests that it was Ebersman who was offering up spin – aimed at assuring older users that it’s ok for them to use Facebook too.

One thing Sandberg did acknowledge is that, after a short-lived experiment with allowing members to buy real-world gifts (cupcakes, clothing, wine) for their friends on Facebook, the company has concluded, “when you think about e-commerce, we are not a sales platform.”

(Sheryl Sandberg on stage at the Salesforce.com conference, photo by Nhat V. Meyer/Bay Area News Group)

Brandon Bailey Brandon Bailey (281 Posts)

Brandon Bailey covers Google, Facebook and Yahoo for the San Jose Mercury News, reporting on the business and culture of the Internet.