My company recently published a report* on social media usage amongst 16-24s in the UK. The most exciting finding was the sheer dominance of Facebook in the 16-24 social media space: the data telling a story of Facebook going from strength to strength whilst Bebo, and MySpace head into the social media desert – only 1% of users visiting Murdoch’s site on a daily basis and newcomer Foursquare  barely mentioned.

Facebook is the social media destination of choice for the vast majority (91%) of 16-24s, and is generally visited several times a day (nearly 7 on average) by its users. Furthermore, Facebook not only trounces its nearest rivals, but wipes the floor with Twitter too. Only 2% of this age group make Twitter their social networking site of choice and around 1 in 5 of its current users claim they will use it less in future. Just stop for a moment to think about some of these stats – I can’t think another category or market (outside of the internet) where one brand is so dominant. But why has Facebook become the behometh of social media amongst this group?

One clue is the extraordinary level of emotional engagement with Facebook - much stronger than for Twitter or any other social media option (47% feel very warm towards it vs. 9% for Twitter). Indeed, Facebook seems to be the ‘emotional default’ for this demographic – a place they go, for an average of an hour at a time, to write on their friends’ walls, check friends’ profiles, update their status and, importantly, to look at photos and upload their own. It is ‘social’ in a way that Twitter is not. It appears that Twitter is seen by this age group more as a ‘transmit and receive’ medium rather than an interactive vehicle for social networking, or – crucially- for self-image projection.

Clearly Facebook has quite a hold on our young people, but what is it that drives such strong personal engagement and identification? A new research article in the journal Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, argues that it’s a self-esteem booster. To test the hypothesis, one group of subjects were allowed to spend several minutes tinkering with their Facebook profiles, while subjects in the other group sat and looked in the mirror for the same period of time. Then the subjects’ perceived self-esteem levels were measured.

“The results revealed that… becoming self-aware by viewing one’s own Facebook profile enhances self-esteem rather than diminishes it… suggest(ing) that selective self-presentation in digital media, which leads to intensified relationship formation, also influences impressions of the self…By providing multiple opportunities for selective self-presentation—through photos, personal details, and witty comments—social-networking sites exemplify how modern technology sometimes forces us to reconsider previously understood psychological processes.”

Thus Facebook seems to boost self esteem: firstly because you can post mainly flattering pictures of yourself and update their status with witty comments; secondly, because the majority of social interactions on the site are positive, they have an obvious correlation with high self-esteem. Also, just being on Facebook says something positive about you - the majority (66%) of 16-24s regard social networking as ‘cool’, and nearly half (48%) say they feel judged by what they put out on social media.

It therefore offers the opportunity for controlled self-image projection plus mainly positive feedback – a highly seductive combination, particularly for the less self-confident. Looks like Selective Self-Presentation might well be the new black!

*Conquest interviewed a nationally representative sample of 344 16-24s, across the UK who regularly use social media.