Friend Me: Looking to Connect, More Seniors Turn to Social Media

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At 101 years, Florence Detlor may be the oldest person on Facebook.

When she was born in 1911, telephones were futuristic luxuries and the fastest way to communicate internationally was by telegram.

These days, Detlor connects with friends and family every day, using email and Facebook on her Dell desktop computer in her Menlo, Calif., home. She said she’s always wanted to be on technology’s cutting edge.

“That’s what makes one time different from another,” Detlor said. “And I think we’re in quite a different time now.”

Internet use among seniors has spiked since last fall, and for the first time, more than half of adults over 65 are online, according to a report this month from the Pew Center’s Internet and American Life project.

Fifty-three percent of seniors are now online, up from 41 percent last August, and 14 percent when the first data was gathered in 2000. Of those online, a third use social networking sites like Facebook, according to the project.

This is good news according to academics like Shyam Sundar, founder of the Media Effects Research Laboratory at Penn State University, and one of the first researchers to examine seniors’ use of social networking sites.

Not only do people tend to narrow their social lives as they age, Sundar said, but also there is an increasing demographic trend toward “aging in place”: living alone instead of in communal environments like nursing homes and assisted living.

“We need to make up for that potential social isolation, and so we think that online social networking sites can be a good solution,” Sundar said.

But it should be treated not as a replacement but an augmentation of other forms of contact, experts say.

“You have to combine both the online updates with real-life face time,” said Tammy Gordon, director of social media and strategy for the AARP.

Thirty percent of grandparents and 29 percent of young adults say that connecting online has helped them understand each other, according to a February 2012 survey conducted by AARP. The information was based on a nationwide survey of 2,126 people in four different age groups.

But many seniors have reservations about social networking sites.

Librarian Josh Soule hosts a Facebook for Seniors class at the Spuyten Duyvil library in the Bronx. There, most of his time is spent on what researchers say is one of seniors’ biggest hang ups: privacy.

Soule told a class of three seniors perched at computers how to make sure their phone numbers, interests and status updates would be visible only to their friends.

“Right now, your profile is defaulted to public,” Soule told the class. “Anybody can find it. I can put your name in right now and it will take me right to your Facebook page, and I’ll be able to see everything you have on it. Some people are comfortable with it some people aren’t.”

The ability to connect with younger family members is one of the primary drivers behind seniors getting on social networking sites. It’s not so much a replacement as an augmentation of other forms of contact.

Tina Santorineou, who attended the Facebook for Seniors class said “you miss the personal touch” with social networking sites, but she gushed over photos of her grand niece.

“If you go to her wall you can see thousands. I don’t know how many pictures she has. It’s amazing,” she said.

Henriette Bard, 92, was there to catch up with the times.

“I made a big mistake in my life,” she said. “When I should have learned about computers years ago, when my husband was alive, I didn’t. And now I started at 92.”

Still, Facebook works best for those who are not only willing to expend energy online, but have a vibrant social network offline. This may explain why Florence Detlor continues to add “friends.”

“If there’s one thing I would say about Florence, it’s that she could not be too connected,” said her niece, Susan Stoehr. “There’s no way. She could take more.”