Facebook is the ideal platform for senior citizens who can’t get out and meet people face to face, said S. Shyam Sundar, distinguished professor and co-director of the Media Effects Research Laboratory, College of Communications, Pennsylvania State University. (photo handout)

Study: Seniors, too, use Facebook for social bonding

Senior adults are no different from their college-age grandchildren when it comes to using social networking sites such as Facebook.

Both generations like Facebook for social bonding and bridging.

A recent study out of Penn State University found that older adults used the social networking site to stay close to family — especially the far-away grandkids — as well as longtime friends they no longer see that often.

And through Facebook they form online relationships with like-minded people and keep up with activities and events that interest them.

One of the biggest surprises from the research is how readily seniors are embracing the social networking site, said S. Shyam Sundar, Ph.D., distinguished professor and co-director of Media Effects Research Laboratory, Penn State College of Communications. He was one of the principal authors of “Senior citizens on Facebook: How do they interact and why,” published this year in Computers in Human Behavior.

“Just about six years ago, when we conducted a national survey of seniors, very few had used it and there was vehement disapproval of social networking sites,” Sundar said. “Many of our respondents felt that the content of communications in Facebook was trivial. They were leery of their privacy being compromised. They did not want their personal lives exposed publicly. They even took exception to the label of ‘friend’ for contacts in Facebook. They were unwilling to confer that label on a weak acquaintance who pings them online.”

Now, seniors are one of the fastest-growing demographics on Facebook. Usage by adults 65 and older more than tripled since 2010, going from 11 percent to 35 percent last year, according to a 2015 Pew Report.

For this study, Sundar and Penn State graduate student Eun Hwa Jung took an online survey of 352 seniors who had a Facebook account. Among the findings, seniors are mostly motivated to join Facebook for social bonding and social bridging, but they’re also driven by curiosity. They want to learn something new, and don’t want to miss out on what’s trending in digital communications.

When on the site, seniors love looking at family photos, but they’re not that interested in posting photos of their own. Those who share comments and chat spend significantly more time on the site, researchers noted.

“They also love the ‘social surveillance’ afforded by Facebook — the ability to lurk, check up on and keep tabs on their family members and acquaintances,” Sundar said.

But for those intent on setting up a Facebook account for an elderly loved one — don’t get your hopes up that it will be a big hit. Senior Facebook users who “responded to family requests” were the least likely to actively participate.

Sundar said Facebook is the ideal platform for those who can’t get out and meet people face to face. It’s an important tool in tackling social isolation.

“Seniors living alone do not have to sit by their phones waiting for a call or hope that they have a visitor today. They can instead go online and have rich social interactions with all their acquaintances from the comfort of their homes,” he said.

Facebook, however, could do more to make it easier and more enjoyable for seniors to use.

Sundar said having features so users can “see” others, more visual tools for sharing and commenting, and message interactivity features — such as a chat bot — would be helpful.

“There could be chat features for engaging seniors in a variety of topics with a variety of like-minded others. A chat roulette, if you will, for seniors,” Sundar said.

“Chats could also become multimodal whereby you press someone’s picture in Facebook and it initiates a call or pulls up your conversation history with them. Perhaps seniors could talk instead of type, making chats more natural, intuitive and easier,” he said.

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