Boomers Joining Social Media at Record Rate

In this undated photo provided by Britain's Buckingham Palace Sunday, Nov. 7, 2010, Britain's Queen Elizabeth II's facebook page is seen. The 84-year-old British monarch will be featured in videos, photos and news items on the site, which will be available from Monday, alongside other members of the country's royal family, including Princes William and Harry. (AP Photo/Buckingham Palace, HO) ** NO SALES ** AP Photo

A series of reports by CBS News and USA TODAY explores the aging of an iconic generation and the impact on the nation.

That mom and dad have joined Facebook is no longer news. It has even been parodied on Saturday Night Live already.

What is astonishing is the rate of growth in the number of Baby Boomers joining sites like Facebook, which between this year and last has skyrocketed.

Social media use among internet users aged 65 and older grew 100 percent last year, so that one in four (26 percent) people in that age group online are now logging in to Facebook, Twitter and the like, reports the Pew Internet and American Life Project in a recent study.

Take a look at the soon-to-retire young Boomers, and that number is even greater: half (47 percent) of internet users aged 50-64 use social media now, an 88 percent growth from the previous year. The number of Facebook users in the U.S. aged 55 and older grew from around 1 million in early 2009 to 10 million in early 2010, according to istrategy.com, a website that tracks Facebook data.

This begs the question: What is sending Boomers to Facebook and Twitter at such a high rate?

One answer might be that Boomers are just catching up on technological trends that their kids and grandkids ravenously consume and discard. Broadband connections are increasingly available for less money and computers and mobile devices are increasingly cheaper and easier to use.

But a more likely key driver for Boomer social media use is a desire to connect with ever-more-distant kids and grandkids, who are avoiding the plain old telephone and connecting more often via social networks.

"I keep in touch with people through Facebook on a fairly regular basis," said Bruce Johnson, 60, a media lawyer based in Seattle. "I learn what's going on across the country and across the world. I'm actually surprised that more people don't communicate with social media on a more regular basis. It's a fascinating interactive tool."

However, social media has also become an essential business utility, as well as a handy research and sympathy tool for the larger number of Boomers caring for aging parents. Bargain hunting, general research, and a general curiosity are some of the lesser reasons more and more older folks are going to sites like Facebook, by far the most popular social media site among older people.

"The ability to reconnect with family and old friendships is the primary driver that (causes) boomers to start to experiment with Facebook," said Brian Solis, new media expert and Author of "Engage", in a recent interview with CBSNews.com.

"One of the things they learn almost immediately is that when their profile is public they (receive a lot of) inbound connection requests of other friends and family and it takes on a new life for them," Solis said. "It's a baptism-by-friend-request, learning the value of social networking."

While Facebook might be the most popular site, Baby Boomers make up a greater percentage of Twitter users and drive its growth as much as any other age group. Solis, in a recent study released on his website, says that around 15 percent of all Twitter users are 55 years old and older. According to istrategy.com, only around 10 percent of Facebook's 100 million or so U.S. users are older than 55 years old.


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Using Facebook and its like for business might be the second largest impetus for Baby Boomers joining social media, but that is a trend affecting every age group.

"Social consumerism in general is shifting to social media," Solis said. "Consumers can connect with brands directly. Social media provides access to exclusive content and information, as well as discounts, promotions, and special offers. Local businesses and services are going to benefit from this. (Applications like) Facebook Places will change that. Facebook is going start to introduce you to things immediately around you in the real world."

So, whether the Boomer Facebook user is a business owner or a savvy consumer looking for bargains or the best local doctor, there is something in social media for almost all business-related needs.

"I'm a comedian, and I decided I need to be there as well to promote myself, my ideas," said Ed Ayres, stage name "Smooth Edward," 59, of Norwalk, Conn. "It has helped. I have an amazing number of new friends, if you can call them that. If I can't ask you to help me move, are you my friend?"

An ever-larger number of Boomers are also finding their parents are moving in with them, and they're using social media to make the experience easier, reports Matt Carmichael for Advertising Age magazine online.

"(Elderly caregivers) use social media for 150 minutes per month and view 70 percent more pages than the average internet user," Carmichael writes while examining a study by gerontologist Laurel Kennedy. "They are driven to these sites by several primary reasons: To validate and reinforce their feelings; To simplify and customize their lives because using social media to keep up with friends and family can help keep things streamlined; and for information and advice."

It is this last aspect--using social media to vet things with people you trust--that is fundamentally increasing the importance of the experience for everyone, especially boomers, Solis said.

"I start my research on Google, but I take my decisions to Facebook," Solis said. "People expect their friends to guide their decisions. Social media can give people a contextual relationship."

Boomers, like everyone else, are also finding that social media experiences can be incredibly inane.

"My first time getting on after having accrued a handful of friends, there was this back and forth by a freelance writer I know describing how she was thinking about chili, was assembling the ingredients from her cupboard, was starting to make it, was making it, was almost done making it, was eating it and was cleaning up, interspersed with her friends comments about same," said Tom Henderson, 62, a reporter and crime novel author based in Detroit. "It just freaking amazed me."

To avoid both the banal and the occasional bad interaction, wherein you say something you wish you hadn't online, Ayres the comedian said he has a strategy.

" My wife and I do have an agreement," Ayres said. "We are not one another's Facebook friends. Maybe that's because we've been married 40 years and we know better."
  • Joshua Norman

    Joshua Norman is a Senior Editor at CBSNews.com.

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