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Why Are Seniors The Fastest-Growing Demographic On Social Media?


This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Audie Cornish. Time now for All Tech Considered.


CORNISH: And we turn our attention this week to the subject of digital technology and senior citizens. People over the age of 65 are the fastest-growing group on social media. That's according to the Pew Research Center's Internet and American Life Project. The group's director is Lee Rainie.

LEE RAINIE: In our first survey in March of 2000, only about a sixth of older Americans were using the Internet. Now it's more than half. And the big milestone, the breakthrough came last year when more than 50 percent became Internet users.

CORNISH: So, for a little context, we're going to talk now with Laura Carstensen. She directs Center on Longevity at Stanford University in California. Welcome to the program.


CORNISH: So why is this such a fast-growing group?

CARSTENSEN: Well, there are two reasons that older people are the fastest growing segment of the population adopting digital technologies for social reasons. One is that younger generations are pretty well saturated, almost all of them already are. And the other reason we see this increase in adoption is that everyday thousands of people turned 65. And so, this group of the elderly is changing all the time. And a lot of the people who are arriving at old age are now coming to old age with a lot of technological sophistication.

CORNISH: So what are the myths that we used to have about older adults online?

CARSTENSEN: Well, I think one of the myths is older people just can't manage technology because of cognitive deficits. But it appears that a bigger reason for the failure to use digital technologies is the lack of perceived need. For a lot of older people, they're quite satisfied with their social relationships, their friendships, their contact with loved ones.

CORNISH: And you've said in the past that older adults tend to have smaller social networks compared to younger people.

CARSTENSEN: That's right. Across adulthood we see social networks narrow. And for many years, people were very concerned and thought this would lead to depression and loneliness and all sorts of problem. And it turns out, what's happening instead is that older people seem to be pruning their social networks; eliminating some of the more peripheral contacts from their networks but maintaining those people to whom they feel very close.

That inner circle is maintained into very, very advanced ages. So that doesn't shrink, rather it's the more peripheral part of the network that shrinks.

CORNISH: It's interesting 'cause it's at odds with what we think of in terms of social networking, which tends to be, like, casts this enormous net, right, whether you're close with these folks are not?

CARSTENSEN: That's right. And I think that's part of the reason older people often don't see the ability to contact lots and lots of people who...


CARSTENSEN: ...they hardly know as appealing.

CORNISH: Now, is this a temporary situation? I mean, by the time the baby boomer generation gets to be of age, are they going to be essentially plugged in?

CARSTENSEN: Yes, I think they will be. I think they will be plugged in. But, you know, of course, technology changes all the time. And it changes faster and faster as we move forward, you know, into the future. And so, people who say today - young people will say, well, I'm, you know, great with technology, I have no problem with it and I think it's wonderful, they're not going to be using the same kind of technologies, they can rest assured when they're 70 and 80 years old. So the kinds of technologies that we'll have that access to are certainly going to change.

CORNISH: Laura Carstensen, thank you so much for speaking with us.

CARSTENSEN: Thank you. It was a pleasure.

CORNISH: Laura Carstensen, she's director of the Stanford Center on Longevity. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.