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Older people becoming more tech savvy

When you talk to Lisa Gibson about her introductory computer classes at the West Las Vegas Library, it’s hard to imagine someone better suited for the job based on her easy laugh and we’re-all-in-this-together style.

Most of her students are 50 and older with a touch of technophobia they would like to cure. Several of the questions they ask, in fact, deal with social media. Their families are often telling them that unless they get wired in, they are going to be left out, she said.

Sometimes it’s more of a push than a nudge.

“Their grandchildren will come for the summer and they’ll fix their computers, and when I say fix their computers, they’ll change different settings and create different accounts (such as Facebook) so that when the grandchildren go home it just sits there for nine months until they come back,” said Gibson, the library’s computer center department head.

According to the Pew Research Center, 65 percent of all adults use some kind of social-media networking platform, such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest and LinkedIn. Although usage among young adults is by far the highest, it has nearly tripled since 2010 among those age 65 and older, from 11 percent to 35 percent. Social media use among those age 50 to 64 is even higher at about 50 percent.

The most popular platform among baby boomers is Facebook. Only 8 percent of those age 51 to 69 use Instagram and Twitter, while 47 percent of adults age 18 to 34 use the two instant-messaging platforms, according to Pew statistics.

Ironically, what started as a popular medium for teens and young adults has become a sort of lifeline for a different generation, and not just as a way to connect with old friends and distant relatives. A grandchild’s soccer scores or a daughter’s work promotion aren’t necessarily going to get passed on with a phone call these days, not to mention photographs. But will they go up on social media? You bet.

“(Older people) have a great desire to see their children in action. One of the main attractions we found in our initial studies was that they were attracted by the idea of being able to keep up with their grandchildren and all the children,” said S. Shyam Sundar, co-director of the Media Effects Research Lab at Pennsylvania State University.

Other reasons include getting in touch with friends with whom they’ve lost contact, “social surveillance,” or keeping up with what’s going on in their immediate social circles, as well as what Sundar calls “social bridging.” In other words, making connections with weak acquaintances or new contacts.

“People are curious, baby boomers are curious, with these new technologies coming into the mix, especially the younger people are all hooked onto it so they want to kind of try it out,” he added.

Terri, a local 68-year-old retired teacher who asked that her last name not be used, has been using Facebook and LinkedIn for several years. She isn’t on Facebook a lot, she said. It’s mainly just to keep up to date on extended family, and occasionally connect with old friends and co-workers.

When the relationships are more intimate, her social-media platform is texting, she said. Her children keep in touch via text messaging, sometimes using it to send her photos and videos, and recently she’s been on group texts with extended family because of a planned get-together, she said.

There is also the almost magical way social media can answer the question floating around in the head of any retired teacher: Whatever happened to …? She has occasionally looked up former students on LinkedIn. One student, she was thrilled to learn, had gone on to get her doctorate and was a faculty member at a university.

As fun as it is seeing the exploits of others, however, she also noted that her generation tends to be more conscious of privacy and security when it comes to online communities.

“I will post on some of my friends’ boards or walls or whatever, but if you were to go looking for me you’re not going to see much,” she said.

Sundar agrees that older people tend to avoid what they consider oversharing. They’re not going to be frequent users of instant photo-messaging platforms such as Instagram and Snapchat, he said. In fact, they are less likely to share personal photos on social media in general.

“Many of our interviewees kept telling us about how much nonsense there is on Facebook or how much trivial information gets transacted, and they say even at their age they don’t have the time for this kind of nonsense,” he said.

On the plus side, social media still holds the promise of building intergenerational communication and allowing boomers to keep their social connections as they age and become more homebound, he said.

There is also no underestimating how tech-savvy older adults can be and how they will keep adapting social media to their own needs and interests, just like any other generation. Howard Verne, a local retired director of software for a large aerospace company and president of the Sun City Summerlin Computer Club, is on Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter. He is 80.

“I don’t do the photo stuff. I’m interested in following a lot of the techie-type people and what they think and what they say, so I get a lot of input on what’s happening in the tech world from Twitter,” he said.

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