Social Networking - A Senior Trend That's Here To Stay

This week Boomerater looks at the growing use of the Internet, particularly Social Media, by baby boomers and seniors. The recent boom of technology has enormously changed our lives. The advent of the Internet has linked us to more information and new ways of interacting socially. At one time social networking was considered a place where teens and young adults gathered. Now seniors are finding it a convenient way to share information and connect with friends and family. Social networking sites such as Facebook, Twitter and MySpace have gained in popularity among users of all ages, seniors included.

How Prevalent is the Use of the Internet and Social Networking by Boomers and Seniors?

The number of boomers and seniors with Internet access has risen sharply, due to a number of factors, including the more affordable pricing of computers and easier high-speed access through cable and Internet services. The Media research giant, Nielsen, released a landmark report in December, 2009, showing that over the past five years the number of people 65 and older using the Internet had increased by more than 55 percent, from 11.3 million active users in November 2004 to 17.5 million in November 2009. It is easy to believe that that number has grown even greater over the past year. Further, Nielsen has found that people 65 and older are not just using the Internet, but are spending more time on it, over 58 hours per month in late 2009. Seniors are the fastest growing demographic in Internet use, as evidenced by the number of web designers and advertisers catering to this increasingly important segment. One example is how designers have developed methods to accommodate visual impairments that are expected to become more prolific as baby boomer and senior users age in coming years.

The use of social networking by boomers and seniors is also dramatically rising. According to the Pew Research Center's Internet & American Life Project (August, 2010) social networking among Internet users ages 50 and older nearly doubled from 22% in April 2009 to 42% in May 2010. In that time period, social networking use among Internet users age 50-64 grew by a huge 88%. And those 65 and older grew a whopping 100% from 13% to 26%. It is interesting to note that the growth for the same period for the 18-29 population grew by only 13%. "Young adults continue to be the heaviest users of social media, but their growth pales in comparison with recent gains made by older users", according to Mary Madden, Senior Research Specialist for the Pew Research Center's Internet & American Life Project. While e-mail continues to be the primary way seniors maintain contact with family and friends, Madden notes that "Many older users now rely on social network platforms to help manage their daily communications."

Nielsen also found a surprising increase in the number of unique visitors 65 and older to social networking and blog sites, going up by 53% from 2007 to 2009. In their study 8.2% of social network and blog traffic was attributed to seniors, just a scant 0.1 percentage points below the number of teenagers who visit these sites.

The Pew Research Center also learned that 20% of adults 50-64 report they use social networking sites on a typical day, doubled from one year before. Further, they found that 10% of the 64 and older crowd are using Twitter. Madden believes social networking and other social media tools can help older adults stay connected to friends, family and co-workers at a time in their lives when they are likely to be experiencing major changes and transitions - whether that's entering retirement, starting a second career or managing health issues.

Also interesting to note, Comscore.com uses a digital measurement to determine the number of people engaging in social networking. The 2010 measurement was 27.4 million people over age 55 using social networking sites!

As might be expected, the faster the connection, the more likely anyone, including seniors, will engage with the Internet. As high-speed broadband connections become more commonplace there will be a greater tendency to use the Internet, especially those activities that are more greatly benefited by a fast connection, such as photo sharing, watching videos, etc.

What Are Boomers and Seniors Doing On- Line?

Nielsen and Pew agree that the email is the most popular form of cyber communication among seniors who have Internet access. According to the Pew Research Center "92% of those ages 50-64 and 89% of those 65 and older send or read email, and more than half of each group exchanges email messages on a typical day."

News gathering also comes in as a popular Internet activity with this demographic. Pew's research found that 76% of Internet users ages 50-64 get news online, as do 62% of those 65 and older. Nielsen's research also found banking, shopping and hobbies to be growing on-line activities.

Nielsen's Research Director, Agency & Media, Chuck Schilling, reports that seniors are using the Internet for a variety of activities, including "E-mail, sharing photos, social networking, checking out the latest news and weather, - and it's worth noting that a good percentage of them are spending time with age-appropriate pursuits such as leisure travel, personal health care and financial concerns."

Social networks are a way for seniors are to stay connected with friends and family, with no cost to the consumer. Facebook, Twitter and MySpace are three of the most popular sites. Today 19 million seniors use Facebook, up from 9 million just a year ago. Nielsen reports that nearly half of online seniors regularly visit Facebook or YouTube. At the end of 2009 Facebook was the number 3 site visited by people over 65; just one year before it was number 45. YouTube was the 4th most popular site visited by those 65 and older.

A major reason seniors use social networks is to stay in touch with children and grandchildren who frequent these sites everyday, and who may be less likely to pick up the phone to call Grandma or Grandpa. Seniors on social networks communicate with their families using voice chats, messaging and photo sharing. Video chatting on Skype through Facebook is an increasingly popular way for seniors to stay in touch across the miles with their families. They also use these sites and others, like classmates.com, to reconnect with people from their past. These reconnections can restore a past friendship or be a way to find support during a life-changing event such as retirement, illness, or embarking on a new career.

Blogging has also become a new interest of many seniors. Many bloggers over 65 report that having a blog keeps their minds sharp. It is obviously also a way for individuals to stay connected with others of like interests, even if they live alone or are in some way physically isolated. Blogger.com offers free hosting to anyone wanting to write a blog, offering easy access for seniors on a tight budget who want to stay involved and connected. Forums and clubs for nearly every possible interest are just a click away through social network and special interest sites.

The sites that provide info on health care, such as Web.md and sites with Medicare and Social Security information are popular with boomers and seniors. Medical sites are often used to research illnesses and conditions. Those living with a chronic disease or those recently diagnosed with a new illness may get even more involved. They often use the Internet to reach out to others for advice or support, often through their own blogs or by participating in online discussions or forums with others who share the same health concerns.

Those 50 and up who are divorced or widowed are also turning to social network on-line dating sites. Evidence of the growing number of older internet users is the proliferation of dating sites that cater to this crowd, including PerfectMatch.com, Matchmaker.com, Seniorpeoplemeet.com, Datingforseniors.com and Seniorscircle.com.

Senior Living Centers and the Internet

It is becoming more common for senior centers and assisted living homes to offer computer rooms and training for their residents. Home-bound seniors living on their own, away from their families, and those living in senior housing and assisted living homes are finding social networking sites a way to stay connected with their children, grandchildren, friends, and former neighbors. They can continue to engage in their interests and hobbies with individuals and organizations around the world. For example, joining on on-line book club, or playing games like chess or bridge through internet clubs, are ways seniors in retirement homes are keeping active with their favorite pastimes.

Many senior centers are enlisting the aid of high school and college students to provide training to their residents. Both the seniors and students benefit from this one-on-one learning experience. A number of senior organizations have recognized the advantages of getting our older population connected to the Internet and are working to make it easier for seniors to receive training. AARP, Older Adults Technology Services (OATS) and Project GOAL are among the most active in promoting social media resources targeted to mature users. One proposal floated this year was the "National Digital Literacy Corps" geared to train volunteers who would help those lacking computer skills. These young computer-savvy mentors could make a huge difference in enriching the lives of our senior population by helping them digitally connect to the world around them. Today wireless technology is a relatively rare amenity in senior living homes, but as more computer-literate boomers enter this environment, it will rapidly become a requirement, essential for residents who wouldn't dream of being "disconnected."

Resources to Learn How to Use Social Networks

For seniors who are new to the social networking arena, but are interested to learn the ropes, there are several valuable options.Facebookforbegginers.com is a fabulous site to learn everything about using Facebook. It also links to numerous social network resources, including a list of "Social Network Sites A to Z". There are over 10 million sites that pop up when you search Facebook for Beginners, and countless books including Facebook for Dummies.

To learn about how to use Twitter visit Seniorcitizenmagazine.com and read the article written by N. L. Goodman that explains step-by-step instructions directed at seniors who want to learn how to use Twitter. Twitter is actually a pretty easy site to use, offering a quick way to get news and a simple way to stay in touch.

There is no question that the Internet is growing in popularity with today's seniors, and as boomers grow older, it will become increasingly ubiquitous. Advertisers are already recognizing that targeted ads to this group can pay off in increased revenue. The number of sites geared to seniors is growing rapidly, in anticipation of increased internet usage or this rapidly growing demographic.