Seniors increasingly read news online, use social media to stay connected
By her own admission, Mary Dysart Quint wastes too much time on Facebook. The Pittsfield, Maine resident logs on to the social networking site three or four times a day to chat with friends and family, share links to news stories, and post comments about TV shows and current events.
None of which would be unusual except for the fact that Quint is 78 years old.
“Being a widow is a lonely life, and I get companionship that way,” said Quint, a retired propane dealer whose Facebook page lists 88 friends, including most of her seven children. In recent months, Quint used her Facebook wall to comment on Tiger Woods’ golf game and Chelsea Clinton’s wedding dress, congratulate her granddaughter for graduating from college, and write about her 60th high school class reunion.
“It’s just a way to keep in touch,” Quint said in a phone interview. “I keep track of everybody that way.”
Quint is among a growing number of seniors who are discovering social networking. While younger people still greatly outnumber their elders on sites like Facebook, Myspace, and LinkedIn, a new study shows older generations have begun to catch up.
The Pew Internet and American Life Project found that people 74 and older represent the fastest growing demographic on the sites. Sixteen percent of Internet users in that age group now visit them, compared with four percent in 2008.
“For people who want to have robust social lives, these are really compelling places,” said Pew Internet Center Director Lee Rainie. “We hear directly out of the mouths of senior citizens that they get enchanted when they log on to Facebook and fill in their profile, and all of a sudden, their suggestion page starts populating with folks from their past.”
A connection for the isolated
Of course, retirees are far outside the stereotypical image of social networkers. (Earlier this year, 88-year-old comedienne Betty White got a lot of laughs professing her ignorance of Facebook on "Saturday Night Live.") But senior citizens’ embrace of the Web and social networking shouldn’t be surprising.
Older people already are large consumers of media. They’re more likely than younger folks to read a daily newspaper and watch network television newscasts. And while seniors were relatively slow to discover the Internet, they tend to use it extensively once they become comfortable with it.
“Our demographic follows the trends. We’re just later to do so,” said Nataki Clarke, the vice president for digital marketing at AARP -- the nonprofit advocacy organization for people 50 and over.
AARP’s Facebook page has more than 20,000 followers, and the organization this year revamped its own website to create a social networking platform specifically for its members.
“As we age, we tend to become more isolated, and I think social networking helps alleviate that,” Clarke said. “It connects you not only to your friends and family, but to other people who are going through similar issues and have similar memories as you.”
The AARP site hosts more than 900 discussion groups -- created by users themselves -- where members post comments about news, politics, music, investments, relationships and other subjects.
Many of the groups have what AARP would call a “mature” tinge. One exists solely to allow users to share cute photos of their grandchildren. Another is for fans of movies made before 1960. And more than a hundred concern health conditions, such as Alzheimer’s disease, fibromyalgia, and cancer.
“For older folks who are not feeling terribly well, social networking spaces are particularly useful to get emotional support and practical advice about how to cope with what they’re dealing with,” said Rainie, the Pew Center director.
Rainie said most seniors -- like the rest of the population -- do their social networking on Facebook. In fact, it’s an open question whether a market exists for other platforms targeted specifically at older users.
AARP said its website’s traffic increased significantly after the social networking section debuted in June. But several free-standing sites for seniors have failed, and eons.com -- a networking site for “boomers” older than 46 -- last month laid off most of its staff.
“Madison Avenue still is focused oftentimes on the younger generation,” said Eons Chief Operating Officer Linda Natansohn, who added that her company is working to persuade advertisers to reach out to older demographics online. “This group has two trillion dollars in disposable income,” she said, “and they are very Web savvy.”
Eons also operates a separate dating site for the over-40 set, meetcha.com. But its most popular site is tributes.com -- which features a different kind of content that appeals to an aging audience -- online obituaries.
Still reading the paper
In addition to noting the increase in social networking among seniors, the Pew study also found a growing number of older people view news online -- slightly more than half of Internet users 74 and up.
Yet unlike younger generations, seniors also are likely to still read a daily newspaper and watch television news, even as they spend more time in front of their computers.
“It’s still pretty new for the older demographic,” Rainie said of the Web, “and so they’re trying to figure out how to incorporate it into their media use. It tends to be complementary, supplementary, and additive rather than something that displaces something else.”
In that respect, Mary Dysart Quint -- the Maine retiree -- is typical of her age group. While Facebook has been a regular part of her life for more than a year, she said she still spends about 90 minutes every day with her morning paper. (Almost two-thirds of seniors still read a daily newspaper, more than any other demographic.)
“I’ve been reading the newspaper since I was six or seven years old,” Quint said. “I like to see the pictures and read the comics. That’s the first thing I do in the day.”
Quint also is skeptical that social media will get much more popular among her contemporaries. Though Facebook already has hundreds of elderly users (I first located Quint on a page dedicated to finding the oldest person on Facebook), she's encountered resistance to technology among her fellow septuagenarians.
“Most of my classmates are afraid of Facebook or even a computer,” she wrote on her page the weekend of her high school reunion. “Shame on them. You're never too old to learn something new.”