The Graying of Facebook

According to Mary Madden and Kathryn Zickhur of the Pew Research Center, older Americans’ social networking use is on the upswing: it’s doubled among Internet users between the ages of 50-64, and nearly tripled for those over 65 during 2009 to 2011 (“65% of online adults use social networking sites,” Pew Internet and American Life Project 2011). In 2010, Facebook alone witnessed a 59 percent increase in users over the age of 55, with women in this age group emerging as the single fastest growing demographic.

While the 50-64 age group comments on photos and “likes” things on Facebook less frequently than “power users” like younger women, Keith Hampton and colleagues at the Pew Research Center find that they post status updates even less frequently than other users (“Social networking sites and our lives,” Pew Internet and American Life Project 2011). As such, older users may reap the benefits of use while avoiding some of the social costs. Power users need to manage their complex social worlds (so that mom, boss, and best friend don’t all see the same material), but older users are able to side-step many of the same conflicts. Retirees may be less likely to fear “friending” past co-workers and higher-ups, for instance. And, as part of the draw of Facebook is reconnecting with old friends, older users may be less concerned about interactions between “high school” and “adulthood” friends. They may seek out diverse opinions and attitudes in their social networks.

Alice Marwick, a social media researcher at Microsoft, predicts the waning of “generational schisms” in attitudes about social networking site use as more and more older people join. Partially, this is because, as Facebook becomes more pervasive among all ages, not joining can entail higher social costs for everyone. Not belonging to Facebook limits or blocks access to certain organizations and information and may prevent full engagement with friends and family who post frequently. So, just as some younger people report feeling pressured into participating in Facebook, older people may also feel a push into social membership. According to Marwick, not belonging may “require everyone around you to accommodate something that’s slightly socially unusual.”

Paradoxically, as more and more older Americans are pulled into the orbit of Facebook, opting out may lead to greater social isolation.