By Mark Miller
CHICAGO Aug 8 Christine Jensen has two adult daughters in their 30s, and they like to tease their mother about the amount of time she spends on Facebook.
"They aren't on it nearly as much as I am," says Jensen, 58, who joined Facebook about three years ago to stay in touch with her very large extended family and friends in the four states where she's lived.
"My life has been chopped into major pieces," she says. "I grew up in western Pennsylvania, but I've lived in Iowa, Minnesota and North Carolina. And I was in all these places long enough to make good friends and professional relationships. It's wonderful to be in touch with them, even just a little bit."
Jensen's experience helps explain a remarkable surge in social media usage by older Americans. A report from the Pew Research Center's Internet & American Life Project released this week found that social media use among people over 50 is growing faster than for any other age group. Usage among those 65 and older has tripled since 2009, from 13 percent to 43 percent; in the 50-to-64 age group, usage had risen from 24 percent to 60 percent.
Still, older social networkers are just playing catch-up - and they have a ways to go: In the 18-29 age group, 89 percent use social media sites. But experts think social media will keep getting grayer in the years ahead as more older people figure out how platforms like Facebook can make a difference for them.
"These are folks who have lived perfectly successful and happy lives for six decades or more without any of this stuff," says Aaron Smith, a senior researcher at Pew and co-author of the report. "When they do adopt a social media platform, it's because a friend or a family member has shown them how they can make your life better, or solve some problem you've had."
Smith added, "If I only see my grandchild once a year and at Christmas, I can use Facebook to see a video of her first steps. That can be very powerful to someone who thought the only thing people were doing is posting about what they had for breakfast."
Facebook is by far the most popular social media platform for those over 50, although the younger end of this demographic is spending plenty of time on LinkedIn doing career networking.
Pew data shows that 57 percent of Internet users in the 50-64 age group, and 35 percent of browsers over 65, use Facebook.
Pew also looked at Twitter, Pinterest and tumblr, which is owned by Yahoo Inc. Twitter has just 10 percent of 50-64 Internet users; among the over-65 crowd, it's just 2 percent.
"Facebook is the starter site," says Tammy Gordon, vice president of social media at AARP, the country's largest organization of older Americans. "It's based on the idea that I know you, you know me and we have a connection - especially for families spread across country."
Jensen, who lives near Des Moines, Iowa, has four siblings, and her husband Clark has five; between the two of them, there are lots of nieces and nephews, and they have a two-year-old grandson. "And my extended family is huge, too," she says. One branch of the family launched a Facebook page devoted to its genealogical history; another has posted videos from a recent big family reunion.
Jensen has also used Facebook to stay in touch with old friends and classmates (like me - we're college classmates and Facebook friends). "It's act three of my life, tying up loose ends and making sense of my life journey," she says. "It's wonderful to put it all together."
The gray surge in social media hasn't escaped AARP's attention. Gordon heads a six-person social team she founded in 2010 devoted to building the organization's social media presence. AARP now has more than one million Facebook followers, and more than 200 social media accounts on Twitter and other sites.
Gordon thinks the next phase of growth will go beyond family and friends. "The second wave is when you move beyond that and start digging into it based on your interests. That's Twitter, where you follow people who tweet about something you care about or find entertaining."
Social media also has potential to help combat the isolation that can accompany aging, she adds. "One of the most interesting parts of this trend is that social media gets you outside your own little world and connects you to people across the country and the world," she says.
"Social media is going to help people stay more mentally engaged. It's not just going to be a phone call once a week from grandchildren. It's going to be, 'I haven't played Words with my nana today - I better check in with her.' We'll be staying in touch in a more hyper way."