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The Social Scene: Older Adults Embrace Social Networking Sites
By Tracy Meadowcroft

In this age of technology, it has become something of a rite of passage for teens to create profiles on social networking Web sites such as Facebook and MySpace. And now, more of those teens may be getting friend requests not only from their classmates and other acquaintances, but also from none other than Grandma and Grandpa.

A December 2008 survey conducted by Pew Internet & American Life indicates that more adults have created profiles on social networking sites, increasing from 8% in 2005 to 35% now. Specifically, 10% of adults aged 55 to 64 who use the Internet and 7% of those aged 65 and older have created online social networking profiles, according to the survey.

“Many older adults are joining social networks to keep in touch with grandchildren and other family members. Social networking sites provide an instant connection to family and friends. There are also social networks for older people that deal with the issues they face as they get older,” explains Susan B. Barnes, PhD, a professor in the department of communication and the associate director of the Lab for Social Computing at the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York.

“Friends, family, and colleagues often encourage people who have never tried social networking to explore it. The more people of all ages join social networks, the more invitations and encouragement older people get to join,” says Amy Bruckman, PhD, an associate professor in the School of Interactive Computing at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta.

Among all adults surveyed, 89% said they use their online profiles to keep in touch with friends, 57% to make plans with their friends, and 49% to make new friends, with additional purposes including organizing events, issues, or causes with other people; flirting; promoting themselves or their work; and making new business contacts. The majority of those Pew surveyed said they have profiles on Web sites such as Facebook and MySpace, while others have them on professional networking sites such as LinkedIn.

Increasing Popularity
“The transition from e-mail to social networking has been accelerating as relatives and friends increasingly rely on Facebook and personal blogs for sharing photos and updates about their lives,” says Aaron Hagedorn, PhD, an assistant clinical professor of gerontology at the University of Southern California Davis School of Gerontology. “The benefit is the instant nature of the feedback and the ease of sharing stories with all of your friends at once at everyone’s personal convenience. It’s more time efficient than traveling long distance to meet friends or family and yet almost as much fun when you can talk to them at convenient times, even if that is the middle of the night.”

While some older adults may lack the computer savvy of their younger counterparts or are considered to be so-called computerphobes, more of them are logging on to the World Wide Web. Bruckman notes that was launched as a site geared specifically for older adults, a spin-off of the nonprofit organization SeniorNet, which works to provide older adults with education and access to computer technology. The Web site indicates that the content is aimed at the so-called third age, encompassing adults in their early 40s through late 60s.

“There were quite a few social networking sites targeted specifically to older adults in the last few years, and though many seem to have gone offline, I have found some seniors socializing and playing games on and,” says Hagedorn. “While these sites may be a little easier for seniors and increase the chances that seniors will meet with other seniors, I have found that a lot of seniors enjoy being in the mainstream … where they can communicate with their family, friends of all ages, and any peers they can convince to sign up.”

Another social networking tool aimed at the older adult population is called LINK communities. “LINK is similar to Facebook but developed specifically for seniors and retirement communities,” explains Janel Wait, director of digital services for GlynnDevins, the Overland Park, KS-based retirement living marketing and advertising agency that developed LINK.

According to Wait, LINK is “an online community built to develop, retain, and build relationships between staff, prospects, residents, depositors, and adult children.” The LINK communities are built for specific senior living communities, and “when users click on the log-in, they enter their user name and password and gain access to their branded, customized LINK community where they will see activity calendars, daily menus, get local news and weather, chat with other members, view photos, and develop a personalized profile, complete with social networking options,” she explains.

Wait says the LINK communities can be adapted to the specific needs of those who use them. Announcements, event reminders, and e-newsletters can be sent out to keep staff and residents abreast of community happenings. “The residents know that they can log on to their LINK community from any computer with Internet access and get all the information they want or need about the community,” she says. “They can see where the bridge group is meeting, who enjoys playing golf, or find out who lives on the second floor.”

Computer-Savvy Elders
“Most of the growth in the population of older adults who are online is coming from people in their 60s who have been using a computer during much of their working careers,” says Hagedorn.

“The more older adults have friends who use the computer, the more comfortable they feel trying it out,” Bruckman notes. “For example, my mother—who is 68—is still best friends with her college roommate, Helen. Mom hasn’t used the computer much yet, but she’ll tell me on the phone, ‘Helen uses it all the time. If she can do it, I can. I really should try to use the computer more.’”

“Kids growing up with all these new digital devices and social networks are very savvy about technology. Older generations just need to learn how to use these tools to communicate,” Barnes adds. “Many older people use computers. I know a 95-year-old woman who had to trade her computer in because the old one was not fast enough.”

But “one challenge for older users is that they may be so concerned about privacy and unsure of social norms online that they hesitate to participate at all,” says Bruckman. “But usually after a healthy period of observation, they slowly start to participate more.”

“There are a variety of challenges to older adults on social network sites. First, unless they actively seek only people their age, there is a good chance they will be communicating with people much younger, and there are, of course, big differences in what topics older adults find interesting compared to teenagers and Generation Yers,” says Hagedorn. “[Also], it takes time to learn all of the functions on social networking Web sites, and it can be overwhelming to learn it alone. Younger people often ask their friends for help; older people may not have friends who are as connected to the latest trends as younger people. Finally, things change so fast—just when you think MySpace is the big thing, many people abandon it for Facebook. Older people tend to be more stable once they choose a routing, and it may take time for them to change their loyalties to the latest social networking site.”

— Tracy Meadowcroft is the senior production editor at Aging Well.