Older adults, who are Facebook's fastest growing demographic, are joining the social network to stay connected and make new connections, just like college kids who joined the site decades ago, according to Penn State researchers.
"Earlier studies suggest a positive relationship between bonding and bridging social capital and Facebook use among college students," said Eun Hwa Jung, a doctoral candidate in mass communications. "Our study extends this finding to senior citizens."
In the study, the desire to stay connected to family and keep in touch with old friends — social bonding — was the best predictor of Facebook adoption and use, followed closely by the desire to find and communicate with like-minded people — social bridging.
Curiosity is also another motivation for senior Facebook users, Jung added.
"Because they are now familiar with social networking technology, some seniors are just starting to use Facebook out of curiosity," she said.
Older adults who are motivated by social bonding and curiosity tend to use Facebook as a form of social surveillance, said S. Shyam Sundar, Distinguished Professor of Communications and co-director of the Media Effects Research Laboratory, who worked with Jung.
"Surveillance is the idea that you're checking out what people are up to," said Sundar. "This is something that many older adults do. They want to see how their kids are doing and, especially, what their grandkids are doing."
Seniors were not motivated to actively participate on Facebook when family and friends prod them to use the site, however.
"When senior citizens respond to requests to join Facebook, that tends to be a negative predictor of use," said Sundar. "In other words, they are not intrinsically motivated to participate when someone else requests that they join."
Older adults also tend to use Facebook features that their younger counterparts favor, according to the researchers, who published their findings in a recent issue of Computers in Human Behavior.
"Our findings show that message-interactivity features — for example the chatting function and wall posting — are the dominant activities for older adults' Facebook use," said Jung.
The researchers suggest that designers of social media sites should emphasize simple and convenient interface tools to attract older adult users and motivate them to stay on the site longer. Seniors in their sample visited Facebook 2.46 times a day and stayed on the site for a little over 35 minutes each day.
"Those who are motivated by social bonding are more likely to use the Like button, which shows the importance of simplicity in interface design for senior citizens," said Sundar. "The Like button is about as simple as you can get."
Developers may be interested in creating tools for seniors because that age group is the fastest growing demographic among social media users. In 2013, 27 percent of adults aged 65 and older belonged to a social network, such as Facebook or LinkedIn, according to the researchers. Now, the number is 35 percent and is continuing to show an upward trend.
"This isn't just a fast-growing market, but also a lucrative one," said Sundar. "Older adults have much more disposable income than teens and college students and would be more desirable for advertising."
Despite the growing importance, little research has been published on what motivates older adults to use social networking sites.
"Most of the research is about how college students use Facebook, or how adolescents use Facebook," said Sundar.
The researchers conducted an online survey with 352 adults whose ages ranged from 60 to 86. A total of 184 — or 52.3 percent — were female and 168 — or 47.7 percent — were male.
In the future, the researchers expect one-on-one interviews with older adults to provide better, more precise insight into the motivations that prompt them to join and use social networks.