Social media is often talked about in terms of youth: consider the so-called 'MySpace generation' or tabloid hysteria around Facebook parties. Certainly, young people are prolific users of social media but the older generation are starting to catch on.
Pew Internet in the US was (as usual) one of the first to spot this trend. Its Generations Online Survey 2010 shows that social networking amongst internet users aged 74 and older has quadrupled since 2008. In the UK, Ofcom's most recent Communications Report mirrors these findings, showing that whilst the majority of social network users are aged between 16 and 34, there is a growing trend for older people signing up to services such as Facebook. Moreover, internet take up in general is also happening fastest amongst older people (who, until now, were least likely to be online). Ofcom says that the highest absolute growth in take up has occurred among the 55-64 and 65-71 age groups.
So why is this happening, and why now, when Facebook et al are relatively mature services? Anecdotal evidence suggests older people are using social media because it is populated with young people. One driver of older people's usage of social media is their desire to connect with the younger generation. A recent article in the Wall Street Journal uncovered a number of grandparents using social networking sites to keep up to date with their grandchildren. Facebook, Skype and Flickr are all user-friendly (and cheap) platforms that enable social connections in some way. Young and older people also share a common space that facilitates their take up of such services: they have plenty of free time. According to Thomas Kamber, founder of OATS (Older Adults Technology Services):
'There used to be a scarcity of communication and it was very precious. Nowadays, communication is so ubiquitous it's free. Older people are catching on to that, and they want to be a part of it.'
One 73 year old grandmother cited by the WSJ says that she joined Facebook after a friend told her, 'You need to do this because you'll learn so much about your grandchildren.' Since joining Facebook she says: 'It does make you feel closer to them – just to see their picture or a few words by them … They are certainly not thinking 'How can I be close to my grandparents?' And I wouldn't expect them to. But Facebook is kind of nice to keep up with them a little bit.'
According to researchers at Pew, grandparents might even be getting privileged access. Increasingly, young people block their parents on Facebook but will be more lenient when it comes to extended family members. One parent even told the newspaper, that — via social media — 'my girls have a whole separate relationship with my parents that just skips right over me.'
So maybe it's not just social media users that are growing up. Social media itself is maturing and these valuable connections are part of that. What if older users can bring a depth and a purpose to social networking, creating an intergenerational online conversation, the potential of which we are only just starting to realise?