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Why the New Social Media Fans Are Over 65

As older Americans discover tech's power to connect, they flock to it

By Richard Harris

Not so long ago, I thought social media was mainly a tool people used to post political rants, a picture of their dinner or viral videos. But this boomer — an occasional Facebook poster and tweeter — got a surprise over the summer.

What began with a bing on my computer and appeared to be a routine Facebook friend request turned out to be anything but. A buddy from 40-odd years ago whom I had met on a two-week cross-country trip had somehow found me among the thicket of digital Richard Harrises. Like so many friendships of our youth, this one had been unintentionally lost to time, geography and busy lives.

We reconnected, first on Facebook and then by exchanging stories of our respective families via the FaceTime app on our smartphones (aptly named because it allows you to witness what time has done to the other person’s face over 40 years). And I began to change my mind about social media.

I now saw the value of this technology beyond trivial pursuits. I saw how it could be harnessed to reconnect to people we lost somewhere along the way, people we once knew when a stamped letter and landline phone call were the main means to connect. I’m not alone.

As the oldest boomers approach 70, the desire to reconnect with long lost friends and family is just one of the factors driving greater social media use among older Americans. A new study from the Pew Research Center reports that among those 65 and older, social media use has more than tripled since 2010. Today, 35 percent of those 65 and older say they use social media — that’s a huge jump from 2 percent in 2005 when Pew began tracking social media usage.

"While usage among young adults started to level off as early as 2010,” says Andrew Perrin, a research assistant at Pew, “since then, there has been a surge among those 65 and older."

Bring on the Late Adopters

That surge is apparent to Andy Livingston, who calls himself a “digital plumber” and runs a Washington, D.C.-area firm called Flush It. There has been such a spike in demand for digital services by boomers and folks well into their 70s, he says, that he is spending more and more time teaching them how to get set up and then making house calls to help them navigate the often bewildering digital world. They are eager to learn.

"I still have folks coming to my classes who don't have an email address and are feeling increasingly isolated,” he says. “I help them get established on Gmail and get connected."

Many of his older clients are late adopters who simply are not comfortable with constantly changing technology but want to explore social media. To make them comfortable, Livingston uses software to connect his computer and iPhone to their computers and becomes, in effect, a personal IT specialist, on call, charging $20 a month and up.

When a problem arises, his clients hit the F8 button and their questions are automatically sent to Livingston's devices along with a snapshot of their screen. "I'm able to look at what they are looking at on their computer screen and tell them they need to 'reboot their computer' or 'accept the update' or something else, depending on what the message says on their screen," he says.

The Graying of Facebook

A headline in the business press last week about the Pew study proclaimed, "Facebook Is Turning Into AARP." Hardly. The social networking site, barely more than a decade old, is still wildly popular among teenagers and Millennials. But Pew reports that 56 percent of Internet users 65 and older also now use Facebook, up from 45 percent in 2013 and 35 percent in 2012.


Livingston says among the most popular requests from his older clients and students: how to set up a multi-generational family group page on Facebook so only designated family members can access posted pictures, especially those important life milestones.

"It's a way grandparents (who may be thousands of miles away from their grandchildren) can feel connected when they see pictures of their grandkid riding a bike for the first time," he says.

While 71 percent of online American adults are Facebook users, 23 percent are on Twitter, up from 18 percent in August 2013. Again, the 65+ group is among the demographics showing the greatest jump in usage, doubling from 5 percent in 2013 to 10 percent just a year later. There's similar growth on Pinterest and LinkedIn, too, with Pew reporting that both sites experienced a wave of new users 65 and older from 2013 to 2014.

The latest Pew research follows its report last year that differentiated between two groups of older Americans online. One leans younger, is more highly educated and affluent and has substantial technology assets. The other is older and less affluent, often with health or disability challenges, and is largely disconnected from social media. Once seniors join the online world, however, Pew reported, digital technology often becomes an integral part of their daily lives.

Baby Steps

For intimidated older people who are just dipping their toes into the digital world, Livingston recommends starting with tablets over smaller-screen smartphones and Facebook over other, less popular social media sites. And, he advises, there's no need to get fanatical about it.

"I tell them to start with baby steps. Don't post a picture every time you eat an eggroll," he advises.

Livingston says he's heard plenty of stories mirroring the experience I had this summer, of people rediscovering long-lost friends on Facebook.

"I had an older lady in one of my classes who connected to a high school classmate for the first time since high school," he says. "You can tell it brightened her day."

Richard Harris is a freelance writer, consultant to the nonprofit iCivics, former producer of NPR's "All Things Considered" and former senior producer of "ABC News Nightline with Ted Koppel." Follow him on Twitter @redsox54.  Read More
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