I remember the phone call as if it were yesterday. It was my mother, and the year was sometime around 1995. "Jane," she said, "I really wish you would get email, it's such an easy way to talk.
Photo by: Age Fotostock
She had grandchildren, one of whom signed her up for AOL, and my grandchildren were too young for that online connection.
Being welcomed into grandchildren's lives is a powerful incentive, and one of the joys of learning how to use the Web.
When I was a child, I typically saw my grandparents twice a year — once in the summer, when we visited them in Massachusetts, and once in winter, when they came to us in western New York.
Now, thanks to the digital world, I'm in touch with my own grandchildren anytime they, or I, want to tune in. Just this week, I exchanged emails with a grandson who's studying in London and another one planning his wedding in Minnesota.
A much younger grandson, on the phone from California, showed off how much he knew about American presidents while emailing me drawings that he'd made of his favorites. "Wow," I said, "John Quincy Adams. It looks just like him." I could see as well as talk.
A Pew Research survey in December 2009 found that 38 percent of people 65 and up now go online. That number jumps to 70 percent among people 50 to 64. Our age group is catching up, and here are four reasons why.
Email. Emailing children and grandchildren is just the start. You can pay them visits through Skype, a free Internet service that turns your computer into a video phone. You see the children's science projects, ballet steps and magic tricks instead of just hearing about them.
New laptops today come with cameras embedded in the frame above the screen. iPads and smartphones have them, too. Or you might buy a small camera and add it to the setup you already use.
Text. Teens and "tweens" never email each other anymore (email is so last century). Instead, they use their cellphones to text — send quick messages through a system called SMS, or short message service (there's an icon for SMS on the phone).
You get up to 160 characters, spawning a bewildering number of abbreviations — CUL8R (see you later), LMK (let me know), LOL (laughing out loud), BFF (best friend forever) and POS (parents over shoulder). Texting is mostly for cellphone addicts, which I'm not. Email still works fine, as long as your kids check their email, too.
Web browsing. Web browsing moves you into a wider world. On the family side, you and the children can play games on-screen, such as Web Scrabble, bingo or Monopoly.
On the public side you can literally pursue any idea anywhere in the world. I've followed politics, learned history, joined interest groups, researched medical questions, drilled into financial topics, checked the latest news from global trouble spots and watched my local town meeting from my laptop.
Some older people never get beyond email on their computers. Those of you who know your way around the Web (possibly anyone reading this column) could probably become a neighborhood guru for people who haven't yet found how much more their computers can add to their lives.
Facebook. Finally, the Facebook question. On this free site, you set up a personal profile with as much or as little information as you want to share about yourself with family and friends.
On first hearing, Facebook might not sound like something worth your time, but I'll give you two reasons to sign up.
First, your teenage grandchildren probably have Facebook pages, and your children might, too. If they give you permission to view their pages, you can follow their doings and even send the occasional "Yay!" when they've achieved a goal they're proud of.
Much of what the kids write to their friends will be boring (to you) or incomprehensible. On the other hand, you'll learn more about their lives. You'll also see floods of photos of their parties, graduations and travels. Nowadays, we parents and grandparents get only the occasional photograph by email. Facebook is the mother lode.
Second, Facebook can lead you to people you've lost touch with. Say, for example, you wonder what happened to a close friend from high school or from your early married years. If he or she is on Facebook, the name will show up and you can reconnect. You might also get messages from people looking for you. I find that the older I get, the more important shared memories become.
My mother, at 96, still fires up her computer and shoots off emails to her extended family. We send her updates on what we and our kids are up to. She began my Web adventure. I'm thanking her here for opening up my life online.
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Jane Bryant Quinn is a personal finance expert and author of Making the Most of Your Money NOW.