Ask teens what their greatest fear is, and chances are, they'll say, "my parents joining Facebook."
What used to be junior high school nonsense is now bleeding all the way into the baby boomer generation. Since 2005, the number of adults using social networking Web sites has more than quadrupled -- from 8 percent in 2005 to 35 percent in 2008 [source: Pew]. In fact, on Facebook, a quickly growing demographic is the 35 years and older age group [source: Facebook]. The fastest growing demographic on Facebook is women 55 years and older. In the span of four months, this user base grew by a whopping 175 percent [source: Smith].
Twitter is also gaining adults, with 20 percent of its users in the 25 to 34 age range [source: Pew]. On the other hand, social networking site MySpace tends to attract greater numbers of younger people and teens, making it a desirable ad market for that age range [source: Stelter et al].
As you can see from the graph, the ages of the users on these Web sites varies, and relatively youthful people still tend to dominate the scene. But older users are increasing. And, really -- should there be any reason for an age cap on social networking? As long as you're getting value from it and understand how to use it, social networking is appropriate for just about any age.
Let's take a look at how the various age groups behave online. Does grandma use social networking sites differently than granddaughter?
How We Behave Online
People of all ages use social networking sites. Studies show that, no matter our ages, we use these sites for one primary reason -- to maintain contact with people we already know. But there are still differences in how the various age groups use these sites. For example, teens tend to visit social networking sites more often than adults: Forty-eight percent visit their profiles at least once a day, compared to 37 percent for adults.
And no two social networks are alike. Each one targets and attracts different users -- some younger people, some older people. For example, Club Penguin is a social network designed specifically for children between the ages of six and 14. Kids make colorful avatars, upload drawings and chat with friends. The average age of a LinkedIn user, on the other hand, is 40 years old [source: Pew]. LinkedIn users visit the site for professional networking rather than purely social networking. Another site, called Eons, is a social network set up exclusively for baby boomers. Eons brings together people of a certain generation. The point is that you probably won't see a teen on Eons, and you won't see a baby boomer at Club Penguin.
Adults and teens also differ when it comes to privacy settings. Up to 60 percent of adults restrict access to their profiles, meaning that only contacts they've personally approved can see their information. More than half of adult users also restrict access to certain pieces of information in their profiles as well.
The media suggests teens are destroying their futures by posting too much personal or inappropriate information and photos on social profiles -- information that could be dug up by future employers or university officials. Studies show, however, that most teens do think about privacy. They tend to make decisions on what to share and what not to share in context. For example, their interest in privacy varies depending on their age and gender and whether their parents view their profiles. The majority of teens also understand that, with some searching, profiles are easy to find [source: Pew]. However, other studies show that this understanding doesn't always translate into appropriate action [source: Levin et al].
Nevertheless, generally speaking, a teen's view of privacy is going to be much different than that of an older generation. From surveillance cameras to employers reading e-mails -- today's world affords us less privacy. If there's a generation gap online, it's how the different generations understand the concept of privacy.
In fact, some adults are reluctant to join a social networking site because they're afraid they'll do the wrong thing or embarrass themselves. What's the etiquette on these sites?
Tips for Adults on Social Networks
For those of us who grew up without computers, text messaging and e-mail, social networking sites may seem daunting. The Internet has its own set of social norms and acceptable behaviors, most of which are learned by trial and error. But we'll help you out with a few tips on social networking faux pas to avoid.
If you're a parent with a grown child, ask permission before adding your offspring to your online social network. In the same vein, choose your friends wisely. If you're unsure about someone, it's more acceptable to simply not accept a friend request rather than add someone as a friend just to delete that person later.
Try not to overdo it on the friend requests, too. Some social networking sites allow you to upload every address in your e-mail contact list to send an invitation. You probably don't need to send an invitation to every single person you've ever met. Be choosy and invite only friends you think would be genuinely interested.
The Facebook feature "Poke" means different things to different people. Poking can mean flirting or even something sexual in nature. So, think before you poke. Also, think before you post, too. Remember that anything you post on someone's Facebook wall or MySpace comments are public. Sometimes a private message is more appropriate.
Even though you remember high school like it was yesterday, others may not. So if you'd like to catch up with old friends, post a photo of yourself. It helps others to connect the name to a face.
Understand how privacy controls work on your social network and use them. Most social networks allow you to customize who can see the various parts of your profile. If you're adding a professional contact to your social network, you may want them to see only a limited profile -- one that doesn't include the pictures from your last Fourth of July barbeque. Alternatively, you might want your best friend to have access to all your photos.
When you fill out your profile, don't list every single detail about your life from elementary school to now. Just include enough information for your friends to recognize you. And remember that even if your profile is private, applications (like quizzes or games) can also access your profile information. This form of information is mostly used for ad targeting. But sometimes this information gathering can be malicious. If an application seems suspicious to you, uninstall it. Read the privacy statement on any Web site you frequent to avoid surprises.
Don't use the same password on a social networking site that you also use for things like banking or credit cards. It may be easy to remember, but that also makes it easier for a hacker to steal your account information.
No matter what, never assume that anything you post online is completely private.
Related HowStuffWorks Articles
- Facebook. "Statistics." Facebook Press Room. 2009. (May 27, 2009) http://www.facebook.com/press/info.php?statistics
- Irvine, Martha. "Add social-networking apps, forget privacy." Associated Press. April 28, 2008. (May 27, 2009) http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/24351675/
- King, Rachael. "Avoiding Facebook Faux Pas." BusinessWeek.com. 2009. (May 27, 2009) http://www.businessweek.com/playbook/07/0806_1.htm
- King, Rachael. "Too Old for Facebook?" BusinessWeek.com. Aug. 6, 2007. (May 27, 2009) http://www.businessweek.com/technology/content/aug2007/tc2007085_540171.htm
- Lenhart, Amanda. "Adults and social network Web sites." Pew Internet & American Life Project. Jan. 14, 2009. (May 27, 2009) http://www.pewinternet.org/~/media//Files/Reports/2009/PIP_Adult_social_networking_data_memo_FINAL.pdf.pdf
- Lenhart, Amanda and Fox, Susannah. "Twitter and status updating." Pew Internet & American Life Project. Feb. 12, 2009. (May 27, 2009) http://www.pewinternet.org/~/media/Files/Reports/2009/PIP%20Twitter%20Memo%20FINAL.pdf
- Lenhart, Amanda and Madden, Mary. "Teens, Privacy & Online Social Networks." Pew Internet & American Life Project. April 18, 2007. (May 27, 2009) http://www.atg.wa.gov/uploadedFiles/Another/Office_Initiatives/Teens,Privacy%20and%20Social%20Networks.pdf
- Levin, Avner; Foster, Mary; West, Bettina; Nicholson, Mary Jo; Hernandez, Tony and Cukier, Wendy. "The Next Digital Divide: Online Social Network Privacy." Ryerson University. March 2008. (May 27, 2009) http://www.ryerson.ca/tedrogersschool/privacy/Ryerson_Privacy_Institute_OSN_Report.pdf
- Lifland, Shari. Old People Need "Friends," Too: Using Social Networking Sites for Business." American Management Association. October 2008. (May 27, 2009) http://www.amanet.org/movingahead/editorial.cfm?Ed=801
- Nussbaum, Emily. "Say Everything." New York Magazine. Feb. 12, 2007. (May 27, 2009) http://nymag.com/news/features/27341/
- Smith, Justin. "Fastest Growing Demographic on Facebook: Women Over 55." Inside Facebook. Feb. 2, 2009. (May 27, 2009) http://www.insidefacebook.com/2009/02/02/fastest-growing-demographic-on-facebook-women-over-55/
- Sodera, Vivek. "Statistics on Google's OpenSocial Platform End Users and Facebook Users." RapLeaf. Nov. 12, 2007. (May 27, 2009) http://www.rapleaf.com/company_press_2007_11_12.html
- Stelter, Brian and Arango, Tim. "Losing Popularity Contest, MySpace Tries a Makeover." New York Times. May 3, 2009. (May 27, 2009) http://www.nytimes.com/2009/05/04/technology/companies/04myspace.html?ref=technology
- Sweeney, Camille. "Twittering from the Cradle." New York Times. Sept. 10, 2008. (May 27, 2009) http://www.nytimes.com/2008/09/11/fashion/11Tots.html