How many friends do I have?” asks Jean, scrolling down the screen bearing the familiar blue logo. She only learned to use Facebook three weeks ago but already logs in every night, while fellow residents at Bampfylde Place sheltered housing watch Coronation Street. “Eleven – is that all?” she cries.
Jean, 65, sits alongside her classmate, Christine, 68. The two women are learning how “to Facebook” under the watchful eye of their tutor, Ted. Also in his 60s, he volunteers with Age UK Perry Barr, Birmingham, teaching 60- and 70-somethings how to use the internet and social media.
“In some cases, without Facebook they wouldn’t have that contact at all,” he says. “When your grandkids and kids are on the computer so much it makes sense that this is the easiest way of getting hold of them.”
Ted’s not alone in offering this tuition. Age UK, The Salvation Army and the University of the Third Age all offer social media classes to silver surfers keen to keep abreast of new technologies. And their ranks are growing. According to media analysts Nielsen, in April 2011 the number of over 65s who visited Facebook more than doubled, rising from 557,000 to 1,339,000 in two years. The number of Twitter users has also more than doubled.
“They previously lagged in their adoption of social networking, but now some of the benefits are becoming available to older people,” says Dr Grant Blank, of Oxford University’s Oxford Internet Institute.
For some over-60s, Facebook and Twitter are a source of curiosity, the names familiar from newspaper articles and TV adverts, and their grandchildren are on it non-stop. In many cases the sites become an extra way to communicate with families.
For Jacqueline Postgate, 67, Facebook filled a void when she retired from nursing and separated from her husband. Now she shares photos with her daughter’s family in Australia and her aunt in Canada from her home in Swansea. “When I was working full time I was busy,” she says. “Suddenly you’ve got no husband and no work and the grandchildren don’t need you as much.”
Jacqueline found Facebook through Saga Zone, the over-50s-only social media site set up in 2007. Today the site has over 70,000 “zoners”. One of its founders, Rupert Miles, puts the rise down to baby-boomers’ experience. “There has been a natural demographic shift,” he says. “Fifteen years ago the web was already a consumer entity. People in work then are now in their 60s and 70s. They get it.”
Michael Kelly, 74, is one of those who just “gets it”. Working as an insurance broker from home in Bristol, he “hops on and off” Facebook regularly and tweets videos and photos of his grandson’s rock band. He has made friends on Facebook through playing Scrabble and poker, and plans to meet long-lost relatives after finding them on the site.
He also represented Age UK as a digital champion last month as part of the Race Online campaign, aiming to introduce the internet to the nine million people who have never logged on. “I know many whose lives would be very lonely without Facebook,” Michael says.
“The sites allow increased social contact with friends and family, that feeling of being part of it. Messaging is instantaneous and you can share pictures; it’s all fantastic,” says David Mortimer, head of digital inclusion at Age UK.
The rise of silver surfers using social media is taking place in front of a backdrop of campaigns such as the Government-backed Race Online, and the BBC’s First Click Friends. By engaging new users, both young and old, such campaigns show the public that the internet and social media are not just young people’s pursuits.
Ted’s class in Perry Barr draws to a close as Jean’s granddaughter comes online with the message: “Nanny what are you doing on Facebook? You’re too old for Facebook.” But Jean won’t take that lying down. “We’re entitled to do whatever they do. Why should we sit at