Seniors Go Social, But Not for News

Online media — and particularly social media — benefit many people. Senior citizens risk missing out.

By Danielle Noble

Online media — and particularly social media — benefit

many people. Senior citizens risk missing out.

By Danielle Noble

Many senior citizens fear that news could one day stop being printed on paper. CC image courtesy of Nosha on Flickr.

Shirley Hubley sits on the couch next to her husband Willard and places a reporter’s laptop computer between them. There is a screenshot of a Twitter feed on the screen; updates from the National Post, CBC Nova Scotia, NASA and Rolling Stone magazine flash by as they scroll through the page. There are a few moments of silence. “Well, that’s quite a thing. I’ve never seen that,” says Shirley.

[pullquote] “It’s going to be more important to be able to go to the Internet and go online … These are the things they are experiencing that are everyday pains for them.” 
– Jeff Brown, computer and social media educator [/pullquote]

More people now go online to access daily news than read newspapers, according to a Pew Center study on American news consumers released this year. Many people are embracing social services such as Twitter and Facebook for their convenience, speed and capacity for interaction.

But senior citizens are not reacting the same way. Seniors are increasingly adopting the Internet and social media, but they are not choosing to get their news from social services such as Twitter. This disconnect between news consumption and online activity is causing the elderly to miss out on an emerging and increasingly important social context for news, according to experts.

Already at 40 years, the median age in Canada will rise further, according to a population report by Statistics Canada. Atlantic Canada has the highest percentage of senior citizens over 55 years old in the country. Seventy-seven per cent of seniors in Atlantic Canada use local newspapers on an average basis, according to information gathered by ComBase, the Canadian Community Newspaper Database, in 2009. But as news goes online, seniors are not adapting like the younger population is.

Willard and Shirley Hubley just celebrated a big birthday for Willard in the Bedford, N.S., house they built more than half a century ago. He just turned 91; his wife, Shirley, is 86. Neither one looks a day over 70.

Senior Citizens are using the internet for mostly Facebook and email, not news. CC imagine courtesy of Ed Yourdon on Flickr

The Hubleys are spry and active. They can often be spotted planting flowers in their immaculate yard or out tending to their vegetable garden. Always up at the crack of dawn, Willard is usually the first person on the street to shovel out his driveway or to rake the leaves. They have been living this way their whole lives – all the while without the Internet or even a computer.

But they have been reading the news every day for as long as they can remember. Willard is sitting on his couch with the Chronicle Herald lying next to him.

“The newspaper has been important to us ever since we could read,” said Shirley. “We like to read the local news and get the gas prices,” said Willard. “And of course you have to read the obituaries to make sure you’re not gone!”


Across town, Muriel Rosevear sings one of the 800 protest songs that she knows off by heart. Seventy years old, Rosevear, a new resident to Halifax, is a member of the Raging Grannies, a female activist group that started in British Columbia and is now a global organization. She said the newspaper is important to her in the selection process of where the Raging Grannies’ next protest will be.


Rosevear said she gets all of her news from newspapers. “It’s where I get my information for [what is where],” she said. Rosevear is worried that news organizations will someday stop printing newspapers because of the harm that they cause by chopping down trees. She said the newspaper is valuable to her and the Raging Grannies, adding “we are definitely going to use the news, because we make the news!” 

What happens to seniors’ social life as they get older?

Sociologist Dr. Liesl Gambold said that seniors’ social contact becomes smaller as they age. “They’re not casting the net as wide as they should be for social interactions,” she said.

She explained that social media websites such as Facebook are great for senior citizens, but they “don’t take the place of person to person interaction.”

However, senior citizens do become closer with a smaller group of people as they get older, such as their spouse, a few close friends and family members.

Seniors are not using social media for news because it is unfamiliar to them, and there is a lack of understanding of how to use it properly. Dr. Gambold said that seniors “are not resistant to change, but change is harder for everyone.” 

University of British Columbia journalism professor Alfred Hermida said that seniors’ fear of losing their newspapers someday is a reasonable one. He said newspapers are an inefficient way to deliver news because killing trees for paper is expensive, and ultimately unsustainable. Hermida said, however, if news organizations stop publishing in print then seniors will still have options such as tablet computers to help them get their news. “They are much more intuitive and simple” for content consumption than laptops or desktops, he said.

Although Rosevear and the Hubleys don’t read news online, the number of senior citizens using the Internet for other activities is growing. A 2010 report by ComScore, an American company that measures the use of digital products suggested that usage of web-based email among Canadians ages 55-64 years had increased by 22 per cent since 2009. Email usage among those ages 65 years and older had increased 28 per cent.The fear expressed by Rosevear and the Hubleys that newspapers might eventually die out is not farfetched on this side of the country. Two big newspapers have already ceased publication in Atlantic Canada: the National Post stopped delivering print editions to the Atlantic provinces in 2006 and the Daily News stopped publishing in 2008.

ComScore also showed that there was an increase in the number of seniors using Facebook; 13.2 per cent at the time of the report. The percentage of people older than 55 using Twitter had increased 11.4 per cent.


The two main activities seniors are most interested in learning about are Facebook and email, according to Jeff Brown, who teaches social media and computer classes in Nova Scotia. Although he could not give an exact number, he said that his company, Alpha Computer Training, sees “quite a few” elderly clients sign up to learn how to use the Internet.

Brown said business people, not senior citizens, are the primary clients for his courses on Twitter. He said most senior citizens are interested in learning how to use the computer to conduct everyday activities.

“It’s going to be more important to be able to go to the Internet and go online — how to email, how to search for things … These are the things that they are experiencing on a day-to-day level that are everyday pains for them,” said Brown.

How Seniors are Connecting Online

A 2007 Statistics Canada study conducted by Ben Veenhof and Peter Timusk suggested that half of Canadians over the age of 65 who are connected to the Internet at home go online for information about their community. The study didn’t break down Internet use specifically for news. Instead, it aggregated news consumption with viewing weather, road conditions and community events.

Anne Elliott-Tomlinson is one of these connected seniors.  She is excited to talk about her blog, titled Anne’s Thoughts. A resident of Halifax, Elliott-Tomlinson uses the Internet regularly. She is an avid user of Facebook to connect with her family and friends, and she keeps up with the news every day. She is also 75 years old. However, even though she uses social media, she does not get her news online. “I watch TV, I get the news on TV, but I don’t get news on my [social media websites],” she said.

Research data isn’t available, but it is likely that Elliott-Tomlinson is in the majority: few seniors are using social media for news consumption or discussion. It’s a situation that may disadvantage them in comparison with other news consumers, according to journalists.

Jean Laroche, a legislative reporter for CBC Nova Scotia, said in his experience people are missing out, not necessarily losing out, if they fail to take part in the social aspect of news. “It’s easy to pick up a newspaper, but with Twitter you might stumble upon an article you wouldn’t have read otherwise, but find very interesting,” he said.

UBC’s Alfred Hermida concurs, saying social media enhances the experience of consuming news. He says that social media is becoming a part of the “news diet.” Hermida compares social media use to a dinner party: everyone brings something new and interesting to the table that others might not have otherwise known. To him, social media offers the same kind of engaging information that can enrich the experience of news.

He adds that social media would benefit senior citizens because it “addresses isolation” and “enhances sociability.”

2011 Population by Province - Atlantic Canada

Dr. Anatoliy Gruzd, director of the Social Media

Lab at Dalhousie University, said senior citizens who do not use social media could be “at a disadvantage of getting the latest news right away.” Gruzd said online news is interactive, and if a senior citizen were to take the step to use a  website for news, then they would be likely to use social media as well.

He said sharing news through social media has a “viral effect” as it is instantaneous and reaches a much wider audience.

Willard and Shirley Hubley see the benefits of using social media, but they don’t feel like they could learn how to use it at this point in their lives. “At our age we just don’t want to have to study,” said Shirley. Willard laughs and then throws up his hands. “I see these people going like this,” while wiggling his fingers as if he were holding a cellphone, “and my thumbs get sore!”

The 2007 study by Statistics Canada said that some seniors find that using the Internet or a computer is too difficult. Thirty-one per cent of seniors mentioned their age as a reason for not taking up the Internet.


But using the Internet — and social media — can have substantial cognitive benefits for senior citizens, according to one researcher.Dr. Gary Small, a neuroscientist and author of the New York Times bestseller The Memory Bible, conducted an experiment in 2008 that focused on the human brain and its activity while using the Internet. The results of his research were published in Your Brain on Google: Patterns of Cerebral Activation. He proposes that during Internet searching, the human brain is becoming more “resilient” in its combating the effects of aging.

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Dr. Small’s research suggests that Internet use can actually decrease deterioration and atrophy in elderly brains through brain activity. However, he said it was difficult to find people over 60 years old who were actively using a computer for his research. “With age, there is less use of social media and the computer in general,” he said. “They’re just not used to it; we get set in our ways [as we get older].” 

Back at the Hubleys’ home, Willard and Shirley hope to keep getting their news from the Chronicle Herald they get delivered to their home every day. If news organizations ultimately choose to publish only online, then Willard guesses they “just won’t know anything about the news.”Shirley tries to be a little more positive about the situation: “I suppose there will always be news won’t there?” She said. “I just hope there will always be a paper.”