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The Secret Life of U.S. Teenagers’ Smartphones

Teenagers in 2017 have never known a life without constant connectivity. But it’s not enough to simply call them digital natives — they’re now fully mobile native in a way no other generation has been before.

“They have the strongest bullshit filter because they’ve grown up in an era where information was available at all times.” Emerson Spartz, CEO Dose

We all rely on our mobile phones for most of our daily tasks and entertainment. But for teens, smartphones aren’t just productivity tools. Mobile devices empower and enable their innate social impulses. Their mobile experiences are highly social, visual and personal, and understanding these habits can provide useful insight to marketers.


A recent eMarketer report shows that 79 percent of teens between 12 and 17 (the age range we’ll be focusing on in this article) now have smartphones. They’re getting their hands on devices by age 12, and by 13, their habits are already fully in place. Half of them say they don’t think they could go a full day without their device.


Social Media and Messaging. According to eMarketer, 71 percent of smartphone users age 12-17 use social media (this increases to 93 percent when the age is narrowed to a slightly older 14- to 19-year-old range).

Instagram and Snapchat remain the top two social networks for users aged 13-18. The common factor? These platforms are mobile-first and highly visual, relying on the phone’s camera. Even when it comes to the more private social realm of instant messaging, visual apps like Facetime and Skype remain the most popular.

“They’re a video generation, yet advertisers continue to push ads to them via videoless, noninteractive mediums. Snapchat ads are some of the best out there because they embrace the medium that end users engage with: vertical video that’s suitable for viewing on a smartphone” Chris Innes, COO, SteelHouse

Digital Video. The media landscape’s ongoing pivot to video is not for naught: Seven in 10 US teen smartphone users spend at least three hours a day viewing digital video — that’s 2x more than any other generation — according to eMarketer. Most of the video teens watch is consumed through trusted social media shares, and through Youtube itself. YouTube is also the digital platform that teenagers most use for getting shopping recommendations.

Shopping. Mobile- and product-obsessed teenagers are, unsurprisingly, frequent online shoppers. In a recent Think with Google/Ipsos survey, 53 percent of the 13-17 year olds who shop online admitted to doing so almost entirely from their phones. Many use their phones for product rating and review research both in advance and in-store.

Not surprisingly, the phone’s camera also proves a valuable shopping tool for teens, not only for taking photos of products, but for taking photos of clothes they’re trying on for social content and to solicit opinions.


In what sounds like a dream scenario to marketers, ad blocking technology has yet to become as ubiquitous on mobile as on desktop, and teenagers say they do see a lot of advertising on their mobile screens.

But the reality is that teenagers are more than just device savvy — they’re ad savvy, too. They’re wary of advertising posing as something other than what it is, they’re increasingly skeptical of celebrity and influencer endorsements and they call the majority of mobile ads “not relevant or useful.” Ouch.

But all is not lost — A UBS Evidence Lab survey showed that social media ads do get many teens’ attention, especially on Facebook and Instagram. Among Facebook users ages 13 to 17, 44 percent said they had liked, commented on or tagged an ad, and among Instagram users in the same age bracket, 30 percent said they had visited an advertiser’s store or website after seeing an ad.

“User experience is the new salesperson and customer support. Gone are the days of a one-size-fits-all user experience. In the future, user experience will be the new brand.” Jonathan Cherki, CEO, ContentSquare


There was never any doubting that teenagers were glued to their smartphones. With the above data to back up what we see IRL every day, here are some actionable tips for engaging this sought-after demographic on mobile.

Go where they are. Teenagers are spending the majority of their social media time on Snapchat, Instagram and, although not as much, Facebook, and the data shows that they’re engaging with ads in these spaces. Contobox’s Social Waller feature lets users post and share a full-feature rich media unit with a personalized message to their social spaces, allowing their peers to engage from trusted sources as well.

Keep it pretty, keep it quick. We’ve determined that teenagers are visual creatures who crave instant gratification. Contobox’s big and bold display and video units make a big visual impact, and its user-controlled interactivity gives them agency and quick satisfaction — and is a great way to hold their sometimes-fleeting attention.

Use video. Teenagers consume twice as much video content than any other generation and they trust video ads more than any other medium. Video is a non-negotiable in any campaign looking to target teenagers.

Give them the option to buy. The data shows that teenagers use their phones to shop, and they will click through ads if they like what they see. Service them a strong CTA and shoppable video.

Be authentic. Teenagers can spot a fraud a mile away. Don’t try to “How do you do, fellow kids?” your way into their timelines. Speak to them as equals, and don’t pretend you’re selling them something you’re not.

Be relevant. Not every campaign, in every voice, for every product, should be on every platform. Do your research, and if the dots don’t connect, maybe make your play elsewhere.

Be useful. Teenagers’ biggest complaint about ads, next to not being relevant, is that they’re not useful. Provide some actionable value for your young audience: A discount, a quiz, or a lookbook as a visually impactful style guide. In a Contobox campaign with Nespresso, users could download a coupon on their mobile, then claim it when ordering from any device. This directly led to an increase in Nespresso machine sales.

Don’t be intrusive. Teenagers are protective of their independence. Don’t overwhelm them on the platforms they believe to be more or less free of adult presence. Monitor your campaign and make the necessary adjustments to targeting, bids and messaging as needed.

Stay relevant. We’ve already outlined the need to be on the appropriate platforms in front of the right audience with the right messaging. But what that looks like now might not be the case in six months. Teens change their online habits a lot — so stay on top of trends and behaviours. Always.


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