SAN FRANCISCO — When Instagram reached one billion users in 2018, Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive, called it “an amazing success.” The photo-sharing app, which Facebook owns, was widely hailed as a hit with young people and celebrated as a growth engine for the social network.
But even as Mr. Zuckerberg praised Instagram, the app was privately lamenting the loss of teenage users to other social media platforms as an “existential threat,” according to a 2018 marketing presentation.
By last year, the issue had become more urgent, according to internal Instagram documents obtained by The New York Times. “If we lose the teen foothold in the U.S. we lose the pipeline,” read a strategy memo, from last October, that laid out a marketing plan for this year.
In the face of that threat, Instagram left little to chance. Starting in 2018, it earmarked almost its entire global annual marketing budget — slated at $390 million this year — to targeting teenagers, largely through digital ads, according to planning documents and people directly involved in the process. Focusing so singularly on a narrow age group is highly unusual, marketers said, though the final spending went beyond teenagers and encompassed their parents and young adults.
The Instagram documents, which have not previously been reported, reveal the company’s angst and dread as it has wrestled behind the scenes with retaining, engaging and attracting young users. Even as Instagram was heralded as one of Facebook’s crown jewels, it turned to extraordinary spending measures to get the attention of teenagers. It particularly emphasized a category called “early high school,” which it classified as 13- to 15-year-olds.
Any slip by Instagram could have larger consequences for Facebook. The social network hoped that Instagram would entice more young people to all of its apps, replenishing Facebook’s aging user base, according to the documents. But the documents also show that Facebook has since abandoned aspirations of becoming a teen destination, just as Instagram has increasingly debated how to hang on to youthful audiences.
The disclosures underscore how much is at stake for Facebook as it seeks to address an outcry in Congress and from the public over Instagram’s effects on users’ mental health. According to separate documents from a Facebook whistle-blower, Frances Haugen, which The Wall Street Journal published, Facebook has known that some teenage girls reported feeling worse about their body image when using Instagram. Ms. Haugen testified at a Senate hearing this month that Facebook deliberately kept people, including children, hooked to its services.
Instagram’s fears about losing young users also highlights how much the internet industry prizes them — and how elusive their attention can be, even for an app that is itself young. Instagram, which Facebook bought in 2012, is less than 12 years old. It has plenty of cachet with teenagers, but rivals such as TikTok, the Chinese-owned video app, and Snapchat, the ephemeral messaging app, keep nipping at its heels.
Instagram, with more than 1.3 billion users, remains the biggest of those platforms, with TikTok at one billion users and Snapchat at 293 million, according to data from the companies. But in a survey this year from the financial services firm Piper Sandler, 35 percent of teenagers said Snapchat was their favorite social media platform, with 30 percent saying TikTok. Instagram was third with 22 percent.
“In any media industry, the newest, coolest thing sees the highest uptake among younger generations,” said Brooke Duffy, an associate professor at Cornell University who studies media, culture and tech. That puts incumbents on the defensive, she said, adding, “We’re in a cultural moment where people just seem to be getting tired of the aspirational, performative culture of Instagram.”
Concerns over teenage users have recently deepened among Instagram’s executives, including Adam Mosseri, the head of the app, said five current and former employees, who were not authorized to speak publicly.
In a meeting last month, they said, executives pored over data showing that a bump in new teenage users during the pandemic was ending. “Teen time spent,” a term denoting how many hours a day teenagers are on Instagram, also dipped. That was alarming because Instagram relied on teenagers to spend an average of three to four hours a day on the app, nearly double what adults spend on it, they said.
Instagram did not have a comment.
Facebook, which was initially aimed at college students, has long depended on young audiences. By law, its users have to be 13 or older. The Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act of 1998 makes it illegal to store or collect personal information for anyone under 13.
In 2013, David Ebersman, then Facebook’s chief financial officer, warned in an earnings call that the company’s daily users had declined, “specifically among younger teens.” After Facebook’s share price plunged on the comment, Sheryl Sandberg, the chief operating officer, said the reaction to Mr. Ebersman’s remark had been “blown out of proportion.”
That same year, Mr. Zuckerberg tried — and failed — to buy Snapchat to increase Facebook’s appeal with young users. So the company decided to attract youths with apps it already owned, like Instagram, two people with knowledge of the decision said. In 2016, Instagram copied a key feature of Snapchat known as Stories, which lets people take videos and photos and post them as 24-hour temporary status updates.
In a July 2017 presentation reviewing a marketing campaign for Instagram’s Stories feature, the app found that college-age students had been fastest to use Stories, while 15- to 19-year-olds were second. But 13- to 15-year-olds “did not respond,” the document said.
“We have more work to do to break through with younger teens,” the document said.
The interest in younger teenagers raised questions internally. In 2017 and early 2018, three employees said, some of Instagram’s workers asked whether ad campaigns aimed at 13-year-olds might inadvertently pull in children as young as 11.
Facebook knew that an ad intended for a 13-year-old was likely to capture younger children who wanted to mimic their older siblings and friends, one person said. Managers told employees that Facebook did everything it could to stop underage users from joining Instagram, but that it could not be helped if they signed up anyway.
In September 2018, Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger, Instagram’s founders, left Facebook after clashing with Mr. Zuckerberg. Mr. Mosseri, a longtime Facebook executive, was appointed to helm Instagram.
With the leadership changes, Facebook went all out to turn Instagram into a main attraction for young audiences, four former employees said. That coincided with the realization that Facebook itself, which was grappling with data privacy and other scandals, would never be a teen destination, the people said.
Instagram began concentrating on the “teen time spent” data point, three former employees said. The goal was to drive up the amount of time that teenagers were on the app with features including Instagram Live, a broadcasting tool, and Instagram TV, where people upload videos that run as long as an hour.
Instagram also increased its global marketing budget. In 2018, it allocated $67.2 million to marketing. In 2019, that increased to a planned $127.3 million, then to $186.3 million last year and $390 million this year, according to the internal documents. Most of the budgets were designated to wooing teens, the documents show. Mr. Mosseri approved the budgets, two employees said.
The money was slated for marketing categories like “establishing Instagram as the favorite place for teens to express themselves” and cultural programs for events like the Super Bowl, according to the documents.
Many of the resulting ads were digital, featuring some of the platform’s top influencers, such as Donté Colley, a Canadian dancer and creator. The marketing, when put into action, also targeted parents of teenagers and people up to the age of 34.
Even so, Instagram’s angst grew. One 2019 marketing memo noted that while teenagers were still flocking to it, they showed no interest in Facebook or the Facebook-owned messaging app WhatsApp. The company should focus on just getting teenagers to use the photo-sharing site, the memo said, adding that “we are not seeing cross-brand interest.”
When the coronavirus pandemic hit last year, driving people to stay at home for safety, “teen time spent” increased to an average of three to four hours a day in the United States, compared with one to two hours previously, two former employees said. Adults were spending 30 minutes to 45 minutes a day on the site.
But while a September 2020 planning document for Instagram’s marketing showed the app had increased its number of daily users by nearly 24 percent from a year earlier, some metrics on teenagers had started slipping. Snapchat was the preferred app for best friends who wanted to message with each other, it said, and TikTok was battling YouTube for teenagers who were sharing videos.
“In the midst of Covid, young people are considering IG’s core sharing features less fun than before, and having nothing to share right now continues to be a barrier to sharing more,” the document said.
The October 2020 strategy document, “Instagram’s Marketing Approach for 2021,” indicated other red flags. A survey of 13- to 44-year-olds who had left Instagram for competitors showed that people of all ages were using YouTube and TikTok more, with teenagers specifically gravitating more to Snapchat.
“These apps offer things that Instagram is less known for — communication interests and entertainment,” it said.
In May, Mr. Mosseri shared a vision statement for Instagram with employees. In an internal post, which The Times viewed, he said the app would be “a place where young people define themselves and the future.” He added that “young people and creators are at the forefront of emerging culture, which is where Instagram plays.”
By then, Instagram was working on an app for children under 13. Mr. Mosseri and Pavni Diwanji, a Facebook vice president who had built YouTube Kids, began recruiting for an “Instagram Youth pillar,” a task force for the children’s product.
Last month, after Ms. Haugen’s documents revealed that Instagram had hurt the self-image of some teenagers, Mr. Mosseri paused the development of the children’s app. But he said in a blog post that the work was not over and that Instagram should create a service with safety measures and content tailored for ages 10 to 12.
“We believe building ‘Instagram Kids’ is the right thing to do,” he wrote, adding, “The reality is that kids are already online.”
Tiffany Hsu contributed reporting.