Are you on Facebook? Seniors and new communication technologies

Curator's Note


According to a recent Pew Internet study (2006), approximately 73% of the baby boomers and 46% of all seniors (i.e., above 65 years old) are Internet users. These senior internet users are taking advantage of new communication technologies and engaging in a variety of online activities that go far beyond sending emails to friends and family, checking for weathers or searching medical information. Contrary to the age stereotypes associated with older adults and/or portrayed in the media, many seniors are forming online communities, looking for friendship, companionship and love with other seniors – just like people in any age group do. In addition to examining seniors’ use of new communication technologies to maintain relationships with those with whom they have strong ties (e.g., family and friends), another line of research is to investigate their relationships with weak ties, (e.g., forming online communities), a topic I would like to explore.


Online communities not only expand seniors’ social networks, they also increase seniors’ relational and/or informational social capital. Lin, Hummert and Harwood (2004) analyzed messages seniors posted on the SeniorNet and found that senior Internet users express values, reminiscence the past, and provide emotional support to each other. In other words, they establish online communities with total strangers and from the ground up. Other websites such as Baby Boomer Bistro, Eldr, Secondprime, and Eons were created specifically for seniors addressing their needs and interests. These social networking sites allow seniors to personalize their page with video clips, pictures and avatar, join interest groups, search and invite friends to be part of their networks, or endorse any posting (AKA: “boom” it , a term used in the Eons site). Rather than catching up with the technology, seniors are creating “their own place to hang out.” These social-networking sites are not less sophisticated than any other social-networking sites such as Facebook or MySpace.


The emergence of these social-networking online communities is very intriguing, and should be of interest to media and aging researchers. We can start by asking these questions: What motivates seniors to join these online communities? How do their motives guide their online activities including sharing, commenting, responding, and initiating messages? What social capital comes through their involvement in online communities? Are there meaningful relationships between participating in online communities (frequency, quality) and health-related outcomes (e.g., physical, emotional, and psychological), and what factors moderate these relationships? What identity functions do seniors try to achieve in these online communities?  


Even though this is an unexplored territory, there is one thing we can be sure of: Seniors are just as connected as everyone else!          







Thank you very much for the great video! I totally agree with you this is a very neglected topic! We did a study on "Silver Surfers" in Germany in which we could demonstrate that older adults use the web not only for information and support, but very much for social contact. The used "flirt-lines", games and stayed in touch with family and friends via social networks. It seems to me that there is a lot to be discovered once we include the older generation into the discourse on the development of the digital society. On one hand, we still need to consider the notion of the digital divide, searating onliners and offliners,  on the other hand the aging process is a highly indivualistic concept, so that overgeneralizing or stereotyping the older generation as non-liners does not do justice to reality.

Caja Thimm


Thank you for your response. You are definitely right. The rise of new communication technologies does create a gap between onliners and offliners. Many local senior community centers offer computer classes to its seniors to medigate this gap. But, seniors still may not adopt the new communication technologies for a variety of different reasons. 

What is "flirt-lines?" Are there many social-networking sites for seniors in Germany? Do you notice the differences between the social networking sites in the US and those in Germany?   

I greatly appreciated your post and video Mei-Chen!  Much like other communities, new communication technologies have the potential to both broaden and compartmentalize the kinds of possible relationships that older adults have. I volunteer as a 'computer buddy' for a number of residents at a local retirement community in my city, and your observations about high levels of computer literacy (and the Wii games too!) remain an important way that many older adults in this community stay connected with friends and family who are geographically dispersed.  I'm even more interested, however, in the created online communities like Senior Net, The Third Age and such where relationships are established entirely online (and then often go off-line), including the initiation of romantic relationships. I see a lot of fruitful lines of inquiry in online support research (such as the research Kevin Wright and Jim Query have been doing) for helping us to better understand the various physiological, psychological, and health outcomes through CMC.  In addition to exploring such outcomes, however, online communities also show promise as dynamic sites for exploring how aging is being redefined (both within cultures and as more global sites emerge) and how intergenerational communication can be enhanced. Great stuff, thanks for sharing!!

Melissa Aleman

Thank you for your feedback, Melissa! I should ask you more about the "computer buddy" experience in the future. I have had some contact with a local senior community and proposed to get seniors to work with high school students. Basically, high school students will serve as their "E-mentors" and help seniors to make their life stories online. We are in the beginning process of planning and discussing the ways to do it effectively. We hope that this "intergenerational experience" will make a difference for both age groups. But, I like the term you used "computer buddy" than "E-mentors." The word "buddy" equalizes the relationship betwen the old and the young. That's really great.

I am also interested in studying the relationships formed purely online, and their relationships to personal well-being. 

Some evidence suggested that older people may start with the Facebook site trying to connect with their grandchildren and young friends, but they gradually move to other social networking sites for seniors to look for common grounds. Grandchildren may not want their grandparents to become their "friends" and see what's being posted on the Facebook. So, whether the emergence of social networking sites can enhance intergenerational communication remains unknown.

Very nice to see how the contributions this week strive to go beyond existing age stereotypes by questioning them and by looking at media and later life from a more nuanced perspective. I agree that we should not forget the digital divide: There are still less older adults (65+) online than younger people. At the same time, it is very important to study their online activities, and indeed, research on social-networking sites that older people use is uncharted terrain and very promising. In addition to the very interesting questions Mei-Chen Lin and the others are asking, I would also like to compare findings of such studies with research on other social-networking sites to analyze the differences and similarities between older people and younger people in their motives and uses of such sites.

Margot: Thank you for the question. In fact, one of my colleagues and I have been talking about comparing the ways young people, middle-aged and older people use YouTube in terms of motives of posting, sharing, or forwarding clips to their friends. I am curious if we will see many seniors "addicted" to these social sites. 


It's VERY exciting to see so many different research ideas and projects already being conducted in this online arena - as mentioned in the original and other posts!  The digital divide will continue to shrink, though it may be interesting how that "divide" is defined as newer technology and newer media hit the market (because then maybe it will not be shrinking as quickly as I think?). I love the video on Wii especially; it seems to provide an interesting adaptation for those not willing or able to participate in sports/exercise in other contexts. I am also curious if anyone knows of folks seeking to use Second Life with the older adult population?  Seems like this would be one of the next steps for health care training programs - our Nursing program already uses it for a variety of educational purposes. Are any of you using it?

Jaye: Thank you for your inputs!

I am not sure if the digit divide is going to shrink very quickly because there are still many seniors who cannot even get access to Internet. It is like when talking about how new communication technologies have faciliated intercultral communication, we cannot but notice the flip side of it. But, maybe the babyboomers will change that, at least in the US.

I also love the video on Wii. Isn't it wonderful? It can be a new social context for seniors to hang out besides playing bingo or playing cards. 

How does the training program work with Second Life? I am curious.   

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