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Study: Older adults using social networks nearly doubled in the past year

The younger generation remains the biggest users but older adults make up the fastest growing group.

Rosie Chapman

Rosie Chapman uses Facebook to keep up with her grandchildren but doesn't post updates about herself. (RED HUBER, ORLANDO SENTINEL / August 26, 2010)

By Sarah Lundy, Orlando Sentinel

2:59 p.m. EDT, August 27, 2010

Ruth Roseboom checks her Facebook page at least once a day. The 78-year-old Celebration grandmother has 40 Facebook friends and likes to see what they are up to on any given time.

Roseboom is part of a growing number of adults logging onto social networks such as Facebook and Twitter to stay connected, according to a study released Friday by the Pew Research Center's Internet and America Life Project.

In fact, for adults 50 to 64 years old, the use of social networking sites have jumped by 88 percent in the past year, the study found. For those 65 and older, it's doubled.

The younger generation remains the biggest users of Facebook and other sites. But the report shows that seniors currently make up the fastest-growing group.

"It's surprising to see just how fast they are growing," said Mary Madden, senior research specialist and author of Pew's study.

Orlando grandmother Rosie Chapman, who only revealed that she's older than 65, joined Facebook more than a year ago. Like Roseboom, she prefers to go online to keep tabs on friends and loved ones, especially her three college-age grandchildren. Neither she nor Roseboom, however, generally share their daily activities.

Chapman was struck by some of the spiritual comments her grandson posts. "I never saw that side of him before," she said with a smile. "I'm so proud of him."

For the study, a survey was conducted of 695 adults who were 50 to 64 and 518 adults who were 65 and older.

The Pew Center points to several factors that contribute to why older adults are logging on to social networks now.

•It helps bridge the "generation gap." The social networking sites bring people of all ages together in one space. Roseboom and Chapman are examples of that.

•More social network users are more likely to reconnect with people from their past. These reconnections can be powerful support when people are entering another phase of their life, such as retirement or a new career.

•Older adults are more likely to be living with chronic diseases, and those with diseases are more opt to seek support online.

More organizations, such as AARP, that cater to older adults are promoting social media networks.

Jeff Johnson, AARP manager of Florida operations, said the non-profit organization uses Facebook and Twitter, as well as e-mail and traditional mail to reach members.

"Over the past year, we have noticed more and more people discovering Facebook," he said.

For the first time, AARP included a session last year at its annual convention that focused on social networking. It turned out to be standing-room only event.

It proved to be so successful that a session is scheduled at this year's convention, which will be held in Orlando next month.

In May, AARP also taught its volunteer leaders for the first time how to use Facebook and Twitter to advocate for older adults.

"There is a growing understanding" on how it can be used, Johnson said.

John Evans Henderson, 62, knew he needed to embrace Facebook and Twitter as he embarked on a new career. He's taking classes and focusing his new business on design building, especially homes, that are both "green and healthy."

The Maitland man has two Facebook accounts — one personal and a fan page for his business, Mr. House Guy. He spouts his opinions on his personal account, but opts to share environmental issues on his fan page.

"I use it to get the word out about what I'm learning and what I can do for people," he said.

Henderson isn't surprised to hear more people his age are using social networking. He's reconnected with several high school friends. It feels more like a natural progression for him, he said.

"I think more people are seeing the way businesses are going," he said, adding they have to adapt to the changing technology.

Seniors Now Computer Learning Center, which offers computer training at two Orange County senior centers, doesn't have a class dedicated to social networking. But it may develop one, said the group's president Tom Springall.

Most older adults, he said, come to the organizations wanting to know two things: how to e-mail and how to get on the Web.

So far, e-mail is the most popular way older adults prefer to communicate online, he said.

That, too, was reflected in Pew's study.

Overall, 92 percent of those ages 50 to 64 and 89 percent of those 65 and older send and read e-mails.

"While e-mail may be falling out of favor with today's teenagers, older adults still rely on it heavily as an essential tool," the report said.

Twitter, the micro-blogging site, tends to be lagging far behind Facebook. For example, Roseboom wasn't sure what it was and Chapman didn't find a need to use it.

But it is slowly gaining ground.

In 2009, just 5 percent of users ages 50 to 64 had used Twitter or another status update service. That's gone up to 11 percent now.

Sarah Lundy can be reached at slundy@orlandosentinel.com or 407-420-6218. Follow her on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/OSsarahlundy or read her blog at http://www.orlandosentinel.com/tech-blog. Copyright © 2010, Orlando Sentinel