Admiring pictures of grandchildren, learning more about hobbies from knitting to golf and searching for the “richest widow in town” are all reasons why older people have decided to take up social networking.
A little less than half of all internet users over 65 were registered on social networks at the end of last year, compared with almost three quarters of the total online population, according to the Pew Research Internet Project.
Instead they tend to turn to Facebook, where 45 per cent of the 49 per cent of older people on social networks have an account because that is where they find their families.
Debra Aho-Williamson, a social media analyst at research company E-Marketer, said many older people haven’t even heard of Instagram, Snapchat and WhatsApp, but they do know Facebook.
“Of all the social media I think Facebook was the one able to capture the most usage,” she said. “A lot of seniors see their kids and grand kids using Facebook and use it as an easy way to stay in touch.”
Facebook has even suffered from investor fears that its userbase is too old and that teenagers are being turned off by the watchful eyes of family on the site. But Ms Aho-Williamson said advertisers had yet to fully take advantage of the ability to target marketing to older, tech-savvy people on the site, which can slice and dice its userbase to provide the right audience.
For the less tech-savvy, some companies are trying to design simpler social networking experiences for the older population. Tapestry is a social network adopted by thousands of people in retirement homes across the US and Australia.
Andrew Dowling, founder and chief executive, said the people least likely to embrace technology are often those who need it the most, as they are isolated. The site tries to entice people online with pictures of their family and charges according to the level of engagement.
“If you’re on Facebook you’re giving up a lot of information which many older users are not willing to do and the whole model . . . with comments from people you don’t already know can be very noisy,” he said. “Tapestry is created as something much simpler, more tailored to the family.”
Generations Online has trained more than 80,000 older Americans and Canadians in retirement homes, seniors centres and public libraries. Tobey Dichter, chief executive, said she started the company in the 1990s with the aim of “making some sort of programme whereby a person does not have to understand the entire vocabulary of Microsoft in order to use a desktop.”
She said older people also enjoy using the internet to read up on their interests, including religious groups and – yes – she even observed one man looking for the wealthiest old lady in the neighbourhood.