Social networking use among internet users ages 50 and older has nearly doubled—from 22% to 42% over the past year.
While social media use has grown dramatically across all age groups, older users have been especially enthusiastic over the past year about embracing new networking tools. Although email continues to be the primary way that older users maintain contact with friends, families and colleagues, many users now rely on social network platforms to help manage their daily communications—sharing links, photos, videos, news and status updates with a growing network of contacts.
Half (47%) of internet users ages 50-64 and one in four (26%) users age 65 and older now use social networking sites.
Half of online adults ages 50-64 and one in four wired seniors now count themselves among the Facebooking and LinkedIn masses. That’s up from just 25% of online adults ages 50-64 and 13% of those ages 65 and older who reported social networking use one year ago in a survey conducted in April 2009.
Young adult internet users ages 18-29 continue to be the heaviest users of social networking sites like Facebook and LinkedIn, with 86% saying they use the sites. However, over the past year, their growth paled in comparison with the gains made by older users. Between April 2009 and May 2010, internet users ages 50-64 who said they use a social networking site like MySpace, Facebook or LinkedIn grew 88% and those ages 65 and older grew 100% in their adoption of the sites, compared with a growth rate of 13% for those ages 18-29.
One in ten (11%) online adults ages 50-64 and one in twenty (5%) online adults ages 65 and older now say they use Twitter or another service to share updates about themselves or see updates about others.
The use of Twitter and other services to share status updates has also grown among older users—most notably among those ages 50-64. While just 5% of users ages 50-64 had used Twitter or another status update service in 2009, 11% now say they use these tools. On a typical day, 6% of online adults ages 50-64 make Twitter a part of their routine, up from the 1% who did so in 2009.
By comparison, social networking sites have gained a much larger foothold in the lives of older Americans over time. One in five (20%) adults ages 50-64 say they use social networking sites on a typical day, up from 10% one year ago. Likewise, 13% of online adults ages 65 and older log on to social networking sites, compared with just 4% who did so in 2009.
Email and online news are still more appealing to older users, but social media sites attract many repeat visitors.
While email may be falling out of favor with today’s teenagers, older adults still rely on it heavily as an essential tool for their daily communications. Overall, 92% of those ages 50-64 and 89% of those ages 65 and older send or read email and more than half of each group exchanges email messages on a typical day. Online news gathering also ranks highly in the daily media habits of older adults; 76% of internet users ages 50-64 get news online, and 42% do so on a typical day. Among internet users ages 65 and older, 62% look for news online and 34% do so on a typical day.
Social media properties—including networking and status update sites—are newer additions to the daily digital diet of older adults. Yet, the “stickiness” of the sites is notable. To look at the data another way, among the pool of adults ages 50 and older who use social networking sites, 44% used them on the day prior to their being contacted for our survey.
The pool of Twitter and status update users ages 50 and older is too small to segment, but the behavior of this limited early adopter group does suggest a similar tendency towards regular use of the sites.
By comparison, less than half of online banking users ages 50 and older visited the sites on a typical day and less than one in five older users of online classified sites reported use of the sites “yesterday.”
Implications: Why social media might be catching on for older adults
As our recent research has shown, the oldest adults in the U.S. (age 65+) are among the least likely to have high-speed access. (Just 31% have broadband at home). They are also the least likely to see the lack of having broadband as a disadvantage.
However, even though older adults may be among the most resistant to broadband, there is evidence that once these users get a taste of high-speed access, they often come to rely on the internet as an everyday utility in their lives. While the rates of broadband adoption among the oldest users are low, the frequency of use among those who do have high-speed access is relatively close to the usage levels of younger users.
Looking at adults ages 65 and older who have high-speed internet connections at home, 72% say they use the internet on a typical day. That compares with 77% of broadband users ages 50-64, 84% of those ages 30-49 and 86% of those ages 18-29.
Social media use is somewhat more prevalent among older users who have high-speed connections at home. Among broadband users ages 50-64, 52% now use social networking sites and 24% do so on a typical day. Among adults age 65 and older who have broadband at home, 28% now use social networking sites and 15% do so on a typical day. Among many other activities, having high-speed access has also been associated with a greater tendency to blog and share other forms of creative content online.
So why might social media be increasingly attractive to older adults?
First, our research shows that social networking users are much more likely to reconnect with people from their past, and these renewed connections can provide a powerful support network when people near retirement or embark on a new career.
In our September 2009 survey, about half of all social networking users ages 50 and older said they had been contacted by someone from their past who found them online. Overall, 64% of social networking users have searched for information about someone from their past, compared with 30% of non-users.
Second, older adults are more likely to be living with a chronic disease
, and those living with these diseases are more likely to reach out for support online.
There are two activities which stand out among people living with chronic disease: blogging and participating in online health discussions. When other demographic factors are held constant, having a chronic disease significantly increases an internet user’s likelihood to say they work on a blog or contribute to an online discussion, a listserv, or other forum that helps people with personal issues or health problems.
And finally, social media bridges generational gaps. While the results can sometimes be messy, these social spaces pool together users from very different parts of people’s lives and provide the opportunity to share skills across generational divides.
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. Photos, videos and updates shared on a daily basis can provide a valuable connection to faraway family and friends who are tied together in a variety of ways. The children and grandchildren of older adults are documenting many aspects of their lives through social media, and these are also becoming popular spaces for professional networking, continuing education, and political participation.
Various organizations that work with older adults—such as AARP, Older Adults Technology Services (OATS) and Project GOAL—have been actively promoting social media resources that are relevant to mature users. In March, the FCC’s National Broadband Plan specifically requested additional funding from Congress to invest in digital literacy training programs for older Americans. One idea proposed under the plan was to support a “National Digital Literacy Corps” that trains volunteers to teach digital skills to those who are least connected in their communities—including pairing tech-savvy digital natives with seniors. With 86% of internet users ages 18-29 using social networking sites and 60% doing so on a typical day, it is not hard to imagine that some of these young mentors would be eager to share their skills in profile management with older users.