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Mature Webizens

Socially Networked

Teens, parents, and grandparents are online and connecting.

technology kids with isight

— Getty Images

Sherian Simpson doesn’t trust the Internet. Never has. These days, she finds herself logging on almost daily to Animal Crossing: City Folk, where players can meet up with friends or strangers to virtually shop, garden, and go about a virtual life in a virtual world. Most often, Simpson will meet up there with one or more of her eight grandchildren.

Simpson, who lives in Arlington, Texas, can instantly “have over,” as she calls it, her grandchildren who live in Las Vegas, Houston and Austin. It’s all done with an Internet connection, a Nintendo Wii video game system and her television. In fact, she and the kids not only play together virtually, but also speak to each other in real time through the WiiSpeak microphone.

“It’s a great way to visit,” Simpson says. “For some reason, being a cartoon character on a TV screen is a sweeter, more natural communication. The children can in passing talk about their problems, and you can say how you used to handle those situations and things like that. It’s just a very nice connection, very clean, very safe.”

A booming market

Simpson isn’t alone in using the Internet to stay connected. In fact, hundreds of millions now regularly log on to social networking sites like MySpace and Facebook, to name just a couple, and connect with family and friends. On these social networks, users fill out profiles with information about themselves and then add, befriend or follow other users of the network. This means they can see the information their connections post on their profiles, and vice versa.

The popularity of these sites is staggering, and they continue to grow. In a February post to the Facebook Blog, CEO Mark Zuckerberg put the number of his site’s users in perspective: “If Facebook were a country, it would be the eighth most populated in the world, just ahead of Japan, Russia and Nigeria.” Yet this analogy is already outdated. Since February, Facebook membership has surpassed 200 million people, more than all but four countries.

Furthermore, the largest growth on Facebook, MySpace and other sites is coming not from tech-savvy teens, but rather their moms, dads and grandparents. A recent survey by the Pew Internet & American Life Project found that the number of adults on social networks more than quadrupled, from 8 percent in 2005 to 35 percent in 2008. In fact, more adults overall are using social networks today than teens. While Facebook doesn’t reveal specific demographic data, Inside Facebook, an independent blog that covers Facebook activity, reported in February that the number of women over 55 who use the site had grown by 175.3 percent since September 2008. (Male users in that age group increased by 137.8 percent.)

Additionally, Facebook’s advertising site estimates that there are now more than 4 million users between the ages of 45 and 65 in the United States alone. Some sites, like Eons (akin to Facebook in style and purpose), are solely for boomers. AARP’s own online community, geared to the 50-plus population, invites users to converse on a range of topics, including dogs, car problems and the single life; and added more than 100,000 new members in the first three months of 2009.

Not many forms of media are shared by so many generations. You don’t exactly see Grammy, Mom and her angsty teen all gathering around the television set to watch the latest episode of 90210, for example, but you will find them all social networking.

Rupert Nacoste, a professor of psychology at North Carolina State University specializing in social psychology, attributes the surge in popularity of social networks to our modern lives. Basically, he argues that in today’s increasingly diverse world people are less sure of how they fit in—and, as a result, don’t take the social risks necessary to make friends. Social networking offers a safe, easy way for people to make connections without really having to take risks.

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