Like a lot of older people, Hal Mozer likes to keep in touch with family. But with three grown children and six grandchildren, it's not always easy. So Mozer, 84, has turned to Facebook.
Through it, he sees pictures of his daughter's family in New Jersey. He sees quick updates from his teenage grandkids. He's shared his own travel photos from Russia and Alaska. And he's had a lot of fun doing it.
"I'm an old man," said Mozer, a retired electrical engineer from Bellevue. "I don't do things that aren't fun."
See also: The dos and don'ts of social media.
Facebook is a free website that lets users share photos and comments on day-to-day activities.
Users can set their preferred level of privacy so that only approved people — Facebook "friends" — see the material a user posts. Friends can also exchange private messages.
Some people use Facebook to meet friends and find old ones, but many use it to strengthen relationships they already have.
Another service — Skype, a software application — can be used for video-chatting with faraway grandkids. Both parties need an account and webcam, which is a video camera that generates Internet images. Although the equipment is not free, there are no long-distance charges for computer-to-computer conversation through Skype, even if someone is overseas.
Facebook and Skype are "a great way for [older people] to keep track of the lives of people who are important to them," said Doug Shadel, AARP Washington state director.
In Washington, 70 percent of people age 45 and older who use the Internet have at least one social media account, according to a survey AARP Washington conducted last year. More than two-thirds said social networking sites are a great way to stay in touch.
The results dovetail with a national trend: Online users ages 50 to 64 make up the fastest-growing group of social media users, according to a 2010 report by the Pew Research Center.
But not everyone is as comfortable as Mozer with computers. Some people find it hard to navigate a website or have concerns about online privacy. For instance, 83 percent of the social networking users in the AARP Washington survey said they are concerned about their online safety.
Others prefer to be social in person or on the phone; four in 10 Internet users in the AARP Washington survey said social networking is "a waste of time."
For people interested in learning more, books and classes are available. Two places to find classes are community centers and SeniorNet, a national network of centers that teach computer skills to older people. For more information on the Seattle-area SeniorNet learning center, call 206-232-5892.
Tips to stay safe online
The AARP Washington website has tips and videos about Internet usage from seminars it conducted with Microsoft last year.
The tips include how to make a computer easier to use by enlarging the size of the type and clicking a few keys to make the mouse pointer easy to find.
"Technology can be really daunting, and I understand that," said Marsha Collier, author of the book Facebook & Twitter for Seniors for Dummies, and a speaker at the seminars.
"But the over-50 crowd has the advantage," she said. "Hey, you've thought things through your whole life. Technology is no different. Start small. Take your time. Connect with one or two of your friends."
People who are unsure about what to post can use social media to see what other people do. Some comment on current events, some publicize their reaction to a World Series game, and others use it to solicit practical advice ("Can I substitute baking powder for baking soda in a recipe?") Experts also say social media doesn't replace in-person contact.
The use of social media "opens horizons," Collier said. "If you have a hobby, you can find people with the same interests in your immediate area. You can find new places to go, new things to do, new people to meet."
Or, in Mozer's case, keep in touch with his busy grandchildren.
Through Facebook, Mozer has kept in touch with people he's met while traveling. He's heard from a distant relative in Israel. And he follows news from groups he supports, such as Planned Parenthood. But he mostly uses it to keep in touch with his family.
He finds Facebook great for staying in touch with his busy grandkids, including 19-year-old Keisha Peterson, who rarely uses the phone or mail. But like most young adults, Peterson, of Bellingham, is a big user of social media.
"If it weren't for Facebook and email, I would probably not talk to my grandparents much, as well as aunts, uncles and a great aunt," she said.
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Vanessa Ho is a writer living in Seattle.