How Boomers, Seniors are Using the Internet

“The Boomer” is a column written for adults nearing retirement age and those already in their “golden years.” It will also promote reader interaction by posting e-mail responses and answering reader questions. E-mail your questions or topic ideas to

It was 1986 when I was first introduced to a computer. I was working at a brokerage firm in New York City when they purchased four computers for the floor and trained us how to check stocks. Today, our cell phones can do more than what those computers could handle.

The baby boomer generation was around for the birth of the Internet and the multi-billion dollar technology explosion that followed—but it’s the later generations that grew up with texting over calling, emailing instead of visiting and updating Facebook. But that doesn’t mean we aren’t keeping up with the latest technology and online trends.

I had a chance to speak to Mary Madden, senior research specialist at the Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project, ( who co-authored its survey on how older adults use of the Internet, to discuss the findings and what it means for boomers and the older generations.

Boomer:  Why do you think that the use of social media has grown so dramatically in recent years among the 50+  age group?

Madden: Social networking and other social media tools can help older adults stay connected to friends, family and co-workers at a time in their lives when they are likely to be experiencing major changes and transitions—whether that’s entering retirement, starting a second career or managing health issues.

Our research and research from AARP has shown that many older adults are encouraged to start using social media by their family members--there's a sort of “trickle up” effect from younger members using the networks and nudging their parents and grandparents to join.  Similarly, when we ask adults about their biggest motivations for using social networking sites, we find that for adults ages 50 and older, staying in touch with family is the number one reason they use social media. By contrast, for adults under age 50, staying in touch with friends is a more important driving force.

However, it should be said that the "older adult" population is not a monolith, and there is great variation between someone who is 55 and 75. From an analytical perspective, it can be helpful to get a general perspective of patterns among those ages 50+ when compared with younger adults, but as more older adults have come online (and we're able to talk with more internet users 65+, for instance), we have tried to include more detailed analysis to illustrate these differences.

Boomer: Which networking tools are boomers and seniors embracing?

Madden: Among those who have actually created a profile on a social networking site, Facebook continues to be the most popular social media site for all age groups--by a large margin. LinkedIn is a very distant second, but is more popular with boomers than any other age group.

There are many other niche sites that have been developed with older adults in mind, but none of them have the traction that Facebook has right now.

Boomer: Did the survey find boomers/seniors increasing gadget ownership?

Madden: Cell phone ownership has been increasing at an especially rapid clip for older adults. Nine in 10 adults ages 50-64 now own a mobile phone. Among seniors, the vast majority now have a cell phone; 69% of adults ages 65 and older have a mobile phone, and that's up from 57% in May 2010. Even among those who are currently 76 and older, 56% report owning a cell phone of some kind, up from 47% of this generation in 2010. However, it’s still more common for older adults to own a basic cell phone, rather than a feature-rich smartphone. Just over one in ten adults ages 65 and older say they have a smartphone.

Another interesting area of growth for older adults is e-book readers like Kindles and Nooks. Almost four times as many seniors own e-book readers now as did just two years ago; 11% reported owning them in the most recent survey, compared with just 3% in 2010. Tablet ownership is also modest, but growing; 8% of seniors have them, up from 1% in 2010.

Boomer: What is the top way boomers and seniors are using the internet?

Madden: Email is still the centerpiece of older adults’ communications routines, but search, and news gathering are also core activities for the average older adult on a typical day.

Social media is not yet as deeply integrated into daily life for older adults, but there's a big difference in adoption between those who are 50-64 versus those who are 65 and older. While close to one in three online adults use social networking sites on a typical day, just 18% of those ages 65 and older use the sites that often.