Ever wondered how many of the older adults accept and use online social networks such as, Facebook, LinkedIn, or Twitter? Jyoti Choudrie FBCS and Amit Vyas at the University of Hertfordshire Business School wondered the same thing and found that adoption is wider than they expected.

Given that there are rapid advances in the development of internet capable technologies combined with widespread household access that is offering super fast and reliable broadband, online social networks (OSN) have become an increasingly important and popular venue for technology adoption.

Facebook had, within six years of launch, an estimated 8 per cent of the world’s population subscribed as members, around 845 million active users across the globe (Facebook, 2012). LinkedIn currently hosts over 100 million users (Qualman, 2011).

Twitter, the microblogging OSN hosts 106 million users (DigitalSurgeons, 2010). Based just on these three leading OSNs it becomes clear that over 1 billion global individuals have adopted and become regular users of OSNs.

Globally, OSN websites are considered to be the most popular online category when ranked by average time spent per internet user (NielsenWire, 2009). In Europe, the UK has seen the largest numbers of OSN adopters and users and maintaining an OSN profile page has become a part of their daily activities.

Professional use of OSNs is an easy and efficient way to build networks and is also emerging in business practice management. Further, governments are viewing OSNs as an important channel to maintain interaction between government agencies and citizens; therefore, efforts to leverage web 2.0 initiatives for citizen-to-government interaction are also being made.

However, although OSN popularity is assumed to be diverse and widespread, this is not apparent when analysing the age split of UK OSN users. Statistics reveal that younger adults (50 years and below) hold the majority of users while older adults (50+ years) remain the minority adopters of leading OSNs such as Facebook, MySpace and Twitter (Lyons, 2010). It is these observations that led to a research gap being identified and one that this research study intends to minimise.

In this study ‘older’ individuals are defined as internet users 50 years old or above, often referred to as ‘silver surfers’ (Netlingo, 2012). Whilst penetration and adoption rates of OSNs reveal differences, research of older users is pertinent for the following reasons:

  1. Little is still known about the reasons and motivations underlying older adults’ adoption or non-adoption of ICTs such as OSNs; yet the world's population is viewed to be rapidly ageing with over 60s set to rise to 22 per cent in 2050 (UN DESA, 2007). The UK is also anticipated to have an ageing population, which is anticipated earlier than 2050 (Jeavans, 2004): ‘More than one third of the UK's population will be over 55 by 2025’ (Jeavans, 2004).
  2. Digital technologies can facilitate daily tasks; thereby enabling disadvantaged demographic groups users, such as older adults, to remain independent longer. By doing so, information such as advanced and updated medical advances and technologies information can be obtained and implemented such that their quality of life can be increased.

Researchers at University of Hertfordshire’s Business School used a random sample population of residents from the Hertfordshire area of the UK, Southeast England to identify and understand the adoption, use and diffusion of ONSs (namely Facebook) in UK’s older population.

The research shows that in terms of frequency of OSN usage, 46.8 per cent of the 519 adopters of OSNs used OSNs on a weekly basis, 37 per cent on a daily basis for less than two hours, 14.6 per cent on a monthly basis and <1.6 per cent on a daily basis for more than two hours. When considering where else besides the household do older adults access the OSNs, it was found that 20 per cent accessed OSNs from their workplace; 6.3 per cent from their friends / family house; 1 per cent in restaurants, and another 1 per cent in coffee houses.

The most popular activities when using OSNs were adding people you know as contacts (86 per cent), commenting on pictures (57 per cent), sending messages (60 per cent), viewing photos (55 per cent), obtaining events information (41 per cent) and obtaining media information (41 per cent). In terms of OSN applications for e-government, participants were found to use OSNs for central (14.6 per cent) and local (1.2 per cent) government interaction and communication.

It was observed that LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter are the most popular OSNs within the obtained sample: Facebook (66 per cent), Twitter (47 per cent), Linkedin (41 per cent), Branch Out (10.4 per cent) and Google+ (7.3 per cent). Participants were asked if their OSN profile hosted a profile picture of themselves with 76 per cent stating yes, 21 per cent as no.

Within all the age groups 84 per cent used laptops to access OSNs. 47 per cent used PCs. However, PCs were the only device cited for OSN use within the 81+ age category. Tablet PCs were used by 13.8 per cent for OSN access and 12.7 per cent used their smartphones to access their OSN account.

It was also found that older individuals will adopt internet technologies if ‘anytime access’ to internet capable devices and a fast reliable internet connection were positively considered or there were encouraging views and opinions as the older adult was considering accepting an OSN.

Unsurprisingly, it was also revealed that older individuals consider and act upon the views of members in their social circle. If a friend, child, or grandchild praised an OSN, an older adult was more likely to accept it.

Privacy concerns were also very important when an older adult was considering accepting the use of an OSN in daily life, as perceptions of privacy risks associated with OSN use appeared to be highly relevant before adopting an OSN.

What is also curious is that older adults who use OSNs are known within friends, family, peers as having a greater social status in terms of number of friends or respect from those they know and popularity among personal peers.

Another very strong reason for accepting OSNs is the improvement in communication and a more beneficial internet experience. These perceptions were viewed to have encouraged older adults towards OSN adoption. As expected primary influence in the form of a participants friends, family and co-workers recommending OSN use was found to be a strongly significant positive reason to accept and use OSNs.

Therefore, this research study showed that OSNs are being accepted and used by a group of society that is perceived as not accepting this technology. What can also be concluded is that the older adults are well informed on privacy issues and those who use OSNs are viewed to be really ‘up there’ within their social group.

The research team believes that this research is important for companies such as telephone and mobile companies as they can identify the reasons that older adults will accept or not accept new OSN technologies. For policymakers trying to bring about change in society by informing and training older adults this study shows that older adults are aware of many of the same issues as younger people.