Lack of teen participation might always be a problem for Facebook but it doesn’t have to spell the end for the social network

friends 2A popular storyline lately is that Facebook is failing to capture interest from teens who are turning to Instagram, Snapchat or other services instead.

The conclusion pundits are making — from primarily anecdotal evidence, it should be noted — is that Facebook is on the decline because it is losing a source of new users. What these reports fail to acknowledge is that teens grow up.

Facebook is very likely looking for ways to engage younger users more, and it recognizes that new tech or new attitudes could prevent the social network from gaining hold among the next generation. The company and investors are right to have concerns, but it is also important to recognize that how teens feel about Facebook now is not necessarily how they’ll feel about it when they’re older.

For the college students who were first on Facebook, the service was about connecting with all the new people they were meeting on campus and for keeping close to the childhood friends they just left. For the older users who joined later, it was about finding people from their past. For many users now, Facebook helps them stay in touch with a range of people from different times in their life.

Middle schoolers and high schoolers don’t have these same needs. They spend at least six hours a day with most of their social network. They don’t need News Feed to know what their friends are up to.

Instead, they’re looking for more real-time communication tools to continue the one-to-one and small group conversations they’d been having at school. Text messages and Snapchats fill this need. Teens are also looking for safe spaces for self expression as they start to explore their own identity. Facebook with its feeling of permanence from Timeline and Graph Search, plus the fact that parents and teachers are also on the service, is not the ideal channel for this. That’s why Instagram and Tumblr are so popular with teens. They aren’t tied back to a profile with your real name and everyone you know. They’re places for experimentation and reinvention, in a way that LiveJournal, MySpace or chat rooms might have been for people who are adults now but grew up with the Internet. Most teens just want to be cool, and Facebook hasn’t made being cool a priority.

However, when today’s teens go to college, they may find Facebook just as valuable as the millions of students who first made the site a sensation years ago. Email has never been popular among young people, but when they enter the workforce, it often becomes a necessity. The same could be true for Facebook as teens grow up.

When people get older, they have more people to stay in touch with but less time for one-to-one communications. They also get more comfortable with themselves and find things that are important to their identity that they’re willing to share more widely. News Feed and Timeline suddenly have more appeal.

Of course, it’s possible for another service besides Facebook to fill this need and catch on among the next generation, but to write off Facebook just because of how teens use it today is shortsighted. The Napster generation was never expected to pay for music in the future, but now that they’re adults with disposable income and streaming platforms like Rdio and Spotify exist, they’re increasingly buying monthly subscriptions.

Facebook might find ways to engage teens now by improving Messenger, owning Instagram and building alternatives to other popular new services like Tumblr and Snapchat. But what might be most important is building a positive brand image and staying top of mind among teens so that they turn to the social network more when they need it in the future.