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Social Network Sites for Older Adults: Online User Experience for Korean Seniors

If you have parents who are over the age of sixty, or know people of that age, consider what they might be doing at this moment. Think about retirees who have no job, or elderly adults who live alone because their children have moved out. Where do these seniors find joy in their daily lives? Perhaps going on trips, taking a walk in the park, or chatting with neighbors? What is it about these activities that seniors enjoy most?

Human beings meet with new people because they are undeniably social animals. However, according to Leslie, people’s relationships with those around them change as they age due to physical deterioration, the death of loved ones, children moving out, and moving themselves. Seniors are known to reduce the size and strength of their social networks as they age.

Due and his colleagues defined a social network as a relationship with others, such as close friends, family members, neighbors, and coworkers. People researching the psychological impact of social networks for seniors suggest that the quality of life of seniors increases when they maintain strong ties with family members and others in a social network. With an increase in the number of older couples living alone, families living separately, economically independent children, remarriages, and technological advances in health, these researchers suggest that the lower quality of life that seniors experience, compared to younger generations, is due to weaker social networks. The use of social networks is a major factor in determining quality of life, stronger than other underlying factors.

The decline of the quality of life of older adults due to the reduction of their social network is not just a regional problem. This is a problem that the aging society of the world is facing. This problem is increasingly becoming an issue in developed countries as their older adult population increases. The reduction of one’s social network is common in all human societies because modern society increases the number of children who move out from their parents and the frequency of divorce as well.

In a study of seniors in Korea, we focused on ways to strengthen elderly adults’ social networking activities in order to enhance their overall quality of life. We wanted to investigate how they used social networks, and ultimately, we aim to use this research to propose an online social networking service for seniors.

Internet social networking services such as Facebook, MySpace, and Cyworld (which originated in Korea and now has versions in the USA and elsewhere) are increasing rapidly. The main users of these popular sites are young adults in their twenties to thirties who have a good knowledge of computers and the Internet. A 2008 study by RapLeaf, a company that researches use of social networks, revealed that seniors rarely use social network sites (SNSs). What are the reasons behind this phenomenon? One apparent reason is the lower frequency of seniors’ use of the Internet compared to younger generations.

A report on ABC News indicated that service agreements and user interfaces of these sites are difficult for seniors to use. We are naturally led to ask: What are the major factors that hinder seniors from using modern SNSs? How can we help them to use the sites more actively?

To search for answers to these questions, we interviewed twenty-two people over the age of sixty who are active users of SNSs such as blogs and online communities. Insofar as we limited our interviews and research to Korean seniors, we cannot easily extrapolate our findings and conclusions to other cultures. We conducted an analysis of the services they used and held focus group interviews to verify the analysis results.

We met some significant challenges because it is not easy to find and interview Korean seniors who actively use computers and the Internet. Most seniors just use e-mail or sites without a strong social networking component, or use SNSs simply to communicate with people they already know. For our research, we sought out people who met new friends through the Internet, extending their networks.

What are Important Social Network Factors for Seniors?

What do seniors generally worry about when they meet other people online? According to a recent report, phishing and spam are the major concerns that dissuade seniors from meeting other people. Because of these concerns, seniors tend to gravitate to people who have common interests when they make new relationships. For example, seniors who like hiking or the popular game of Jang Gi (Korean checkers) might want to find others who share such interests.

Furthermore, seniors prefer to meet someone face-to-face rather than through the Internet or phone. According to a paper by Smith, Rogers, and Brady from 2003, the fundamental reason behind this preference is that everyone reveals and acknowledges their advanced age, putting them on common ground. Although in our interviews, age was uniformly distributed from sixty to seventy-seven, most of the participants who were involved, with the exception of two, answered that they are “old.” The two exceptions thought that they were “young” and had mindsets similar to younger people.

This characteristic can be explained according to Carstensen’s Socioemotional Selectivity Theory (SST): when elderly adults understand that they do not have much time left until the day of death because of their age, they tend to give more attention to current relationships rather than pursue new ones. Therefore, the elderly tend to spend more time with, and also to be respected by, their family members, friends, and neighbors. They have strong negative feelings about meeting new people who are older than they are. They also feel negatively about meeting younger people, because they perceive younger people to have bad manners toward them. These issues hindered seniors from meeting new people, both in person and online.

What are the Challenges of Social Networks for Seniors?

Participants in our research had been using the Internet for more than three years, joining diverse communities online and possessing good abilities to get the information they want from the Internet. However, they tended to use blogs and communities more than online social networks to meet new friends and share information. Why do the elderly network through methods other than online systems, the primary group of services used for younger people? The answer to this question became apparent during the interviews.

Figure 1 shows a hierarchical map, derived from the interview data of twenty-two seniors using the laddering technique. Laddering is a method for finding motivation about some action. It begins with a simple question, and then another question is asked about that response. For example, an interviewer might ask: “Do you like to make new friends?” and the response may be, “Yes I do.” The next question would be something like, “Why do you like making new friends?”

  • We were able to identify three patterns of online social networking activities from this map:
  •  Activity in order to learn new information
  • A lack of desire for new social network contacts because of being busy with activities such as religious events and volunteer work
  • Maintaining already existing social networks to share knowledge and experience

These patterns ultimately indicate that reducing loneliness improves the general quality of life by increasing happiness.

Despite their potential value to seniors, most current SNSs offer “hedonistic” services targeted towards younger generations. They take the forms of exchanging simple messages and sharing pictures or movies by revealing their everyday lives among friends. In other words, current SNSs are unable to offer networking functions that fit the needs and wants of the elderly. In contrast, seniors did not want to expose their daily lives online because they feared that it would expose personal information and that they would receive spam. Consequently, although seniors participate in blogs and some online communities, they do not find social networks an environment that encourages them to share their own information with others.

The need to use generally unfamiliar technology to participate in a SNS is also a barrier. For example, most of the younger participants in our research use SWISH, popular animation software similar to Adobe Flash, to create multimedia with photos, music, or other content to post to blogs or communities, and they actively share information about how to make SWISH content.

chart of activity patterns
Figure 1. Online social network activity hierarchical map of seniors.

How Should Social Network Services be Designed for the Needs of Seniors?

SNSs are one type of internet service; they are not a better service than blogs or communities. Nevertheless, we believe SNSs for seniors offer an effective way of providing social networking functions, which are vital for the enhancement of seniors’ quality of life. This advantage occurs because SNSs can actively support networking activities by providing appropriate functions in an online environment among current internet services. Unfortunately, current SNSs do not offer the right structures and functions for seniors, making it difficult for seniors to use online services to carry out social networking activities.

The problem that older adults face in online social networking services is that the element of fun comprises a large part of those services. SNSs such as Facebook and MySpace are designed for individuals to send simple messages and share pictures, videos, and games. Because the element of fun is emphasized, older adults do not feel satisfaction in using existing SNSs.

However, this research aims to focus on information, rather than fun, as an important element of social networking.

How then can SNSs meet the needs of seniors? For one thing, they want new information, but not just content that relates to computers and technologies. Among the elderly who use computers, only a few of them learned to use computers at work; most seniors learn computer skills through programs at senior centers. However, as the population raised with computers ages, most seniors will know how to use computers; they will seek information about subjects such as health, life, and leisure.

New SNSs targeted to seniors must enable them to share and learn this diverse, necessary content. Even more importantly, the information that seniors want must be offered by internet services produced by and for them, not on SNSs dominated by younger people. For this reason, we suggest an information sharing ecosystem that will focus on the needs of seniors, providing them with a way to produce, share, and consume the information for themselves.

Information sharing ecosystems are SNSs that do not focus on fun like SNSs for younger generations. Instead, they are activity-based SNSs that place emphasis on older adults being able to share information about their actual experiences with others. In these sites, older adults are able to share written literature, pictures, and other information with other older adults, and they are able to meet new friends in order to acquire new information. These sites are based on sharing, which may seem similar to blogs. However, blogs require older adults to understand new techniques or concepts such as RSS and trackback and are thus not appropriate.

By analyzing limitations of current SNSs from the perspective of seniors and investigating what items are vital for providing online services to seniors, our study revealed some implications of social networking. These implications will become more important as the population of seniors increases all over the world. Government, public, and private organizations are developing many new social programs and policies for seniors. We seek to overcome the problems seniors face in maintaining their own social networks by creating ways for them to use the Internet as a social networking tool.

The next steps in our research will build on this analysis to suggest new features for social networking systems that will meet the needs of the current generation of seniors, enabling them to use these systems to improve their quality of life