That annoyingly persistent stereotype of today’s Facebooking and Tweeting youth as the “Look-at-Me” generation has just received a blast of reality from a new Pew Research study released Friday that finds that online social networking has seen its most dramatic growth this year among internet users aged 50 and older.
Just how dramatic is that growth? Between April 2009 and May 2010 social networking use among internet users aged 50-64 grew by a walloping 88 percent, nearly doubling from 25 percent in April 2009 to 47 percent in May 2010, according to the report. This was even higher for older seniors. Usage among those over the age of 65 grew by 100 percent—from 13 percent in April 2009 to 26 percent in May 2010.
Compare this to the rate of growth among users aged 18-29, which saw a 13 percent increase from 76 percent in April 2009 to 86 percent in May 2010.
“Young adults continue to be the heaviest users of social media, but their growth pales in comparison with recent gains made by older users,” said the report’s author, Mary Madden, Senior Research Specialist for the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project.
Email remains the primary medium through which seniors maintain contact with family and friends, but Madden notes that “many older users now rely on social network platforms to help manage their daily communications.”
Not only has usage itself skyrocketed among seniors, so has the frequency with which seniors use online social networking. In 2009, 10 percent of users between the ages of 50 and 64 said they visited social networking sites every day, but in 2010 that number doubled to 20 percent.
Furthermore, in May 2010, 11 percent of users in the study said they’ve used Twitter and other status updating networks, which is up more than 100 percent since 2009, when only 5 percent said they had used such sites. Of those who do use Twitter and similar status updating sites, daily usage has gone up from 1 percent in 2009 to 6 percent.
The bigger question is, Why?
“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,” said Madden in an email. “Email is still at the center of older adults’ communications routines, but the rich features of social media -- the ability to share photos, videos, status updates across customized networks—can be a powerful selling point for those who are encouraging older adults to join their networks.”
Similar reasons have been echoed in previous studies and articles looking at the growing population of seniors on online social networking sites. "One of the greatest challenges or losses that we face as older adults, frankly, is not about our health, but it’s actually about our social network deteriorating on us, because our friends get sick, our spouse passes away, friends pass away, or we move," Joseph Coughlin, director of the AgeLab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, explained to the NYTimes.
Online social networking presents a unique opportunity for seniors - particularly those who may be home-bound due to health issues - to stay connected. “There are few other spaces - online or offline - where tweens, teens, sandwich generation members, grandparents, friends and neighbors regularly intersect and communicate across the same network,” said Madden.
The study’s findings came from a nationwide telephone survey of 2,252 American adults.
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