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
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
Pew data shows that 57 percent of Internet users in the
50-64 age group, and 35 percent of browsers over 65, use
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
"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
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."