The lure of grandkids draws seniors to social media

If there was ever an example of the viral nature of social media, it’s the creation of Facebook. The social media site went from a site for Harvard students to a global phenomenon.

The slickness and simplicity of the site, along with the ability to share pictures and updates with their friends from around campus — and around the world — have all been mentioned as reasons for using the social media site.

Now, according to work done by Penn State researchers, those same interface features and social media bonding experiences are prompting older adults to join the site.

Oh. And there’s one more reason: the lure of grandchildren…

Our researchers, Eun Hwa Jung, a doctoral candidate in mass communications and S. Shyam Sundar, Distinguished Professor of Communications and co-director of the Media Effects Research Laboratory, explain that lure and more. 

What role does geography play in older adults move toward Facebook?
According to Pew Research from 2015, the use of social networking sites is different depending on community type. This data indicates that adults in suburban (68%) and urban (64%) communities are more likely to use social networking sites than rural (58%) community. Regarding this issue, we also collected data from 21 states in United States (e.g., Arizona, California, Connecticut, etc.) and specifically examined if Facebook users’ geographical places predict the likelihood of them being on Facebook. However, the result shows no relationship between their states and Facebook usage.  

What is the “lure of grandchildren”?
Senior citizens like to view their family’s photos, especially involving grandchildren’s social media activities, because they do not have many chances to interact with grandchildren in their daily lives. Therefore, sharing photos is the most useful and enjoyable means of communication on Facebook for them, given that it helps them to keep in visual touch with family members in distant places.

What’s the connection between older adults who use smartphones and Facebook use?
As indicated in our study results, older adults who use smartphones are more likely to use Facebook than those who do not use smartphones. It seems that smartphones increase older users’ accessibility to Facebook by connecting them to the internet whenever and wherever they want. This result is also probably reflective of the tech-savviness of the seniors. The more tech-savvy a senior is, the more likely that s/he would use a smartphone and also get on Facebook.

If nagging — I mean, sending requests to — parents and grandparents to join Facebook doesn’t seem to work, could you suggest a few ideas that might help them?
Maybe it would be helpful to inform older adults of the benefits of using Facebook, for example, by showing some photos posted on Facebook. One study participant whom we met mentioned that her daughters usually send a text message asking her to visit their Facebook timeline to view family photos. In this way, older adults may get to know the usefulness of visual interaction on Facebook, which makes them naturally engage with their family members through Facebook. This way also helps older adults arouse their curiosity about Facebook. Given our finding that seniors’ curiosity about interacting on Facebook plays an important role in their Facebook adoption, it would be great to stimulate their intrinsic motivations to use Facebook.

What would motivate developers to improve tools and features on social media for seniors and older adults? Why cater to that demographic?
Public health includes good mental health, including among senior citizens. As the baby boomer generation ages, there will not be sufficient room for everyone in retirement homes, forcing many of them to age in place, i.e., in their own homes. This might lead to social isolation because advancing age is accompanied by declining mobility. Social media hold the promise of combating this isolation by affording seniors aging in place the ability to have a rich social life, actively interacting with others — including both peers and family members.
Developers should be intrinsically motivated to address this societal need. An argument can also be made for them to be motivated for commercial reasons, given that seniors tend to have more disposable income and may be more receptive to advertising and other commercial appeals via their Facebook feed. Therefore, it is necessary to tailor tools and features to older adults’ needs because most social media features focus on younger adults’ use of social media but older adults have different preferences and technology skills in using social media.

By the way, you can catch both of the researchers this Thursday, April 14, at the Schlow Centre Region Library for a session of Research Unplugged. Jung and Sundar will be presenting “Assisted Aging: How Smart Technology Will Change How We Grow Old.”

Members of the news media interested in talking to Jung or Sundar should contact Matt Swayne at 814-865-5774 or

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