How Different Generations Adapt to the Internet and Social Media

Article by Lauren Kostenberger

Different generations have adapted to the rise of the Internet and social media with varying degrees of success. While some people’s grandparents have Facebook accounts and like every single update they post, plenty of my older relatives rarely even check their email account that they set up with their internet provider in the 90s. And everyone’s seen a 6-year-old walking around with the latest smartphone or advertisements for education apps for children on Mom’s iPad and wondered at how early kids are getting into technology and social media these days.

For the older generations, social media is something they can’t even wrap their minds around. Even my grandparents have accepted that they need to check their email account even though it means sitting through dial-up internet and loading Windows 95 on their clunky desktop computer. But they’re never going to retweet my thoughts on the latest episode of the Mindy Project, and they would never use Instagram to put a sepia-toned filter on a photo when they have a full-color digital camera. When visiting my great-aunt and uncle a couple years ago, I spent a solid hour explaining the concept of tagging someone in a photo on Facebook to my great-aunt, who’s in her late 70s. She still can’t understand what a wall is beyond those things you hang paintings on, and she just doesn’t get why someone would want to update everyone on their status.


Beyond my great-aunt, however, Facebook remains the one social network that a small percentage of people in the older generation have managed to understand enough to create accounts on. In fact, some of my friends have grandmothers who are incredibly active on Facebook. They’ll constantly post about the activities of their children and grandchildren, and my friends always have one guaranteed like on every new profile picture they upload: Grandma. Twitter, Instagram, Vine, Tumblr and beyond haven’t and probably won’t have a strong user base among people of retirement age, however. Retirees struggle to keep up with more than one type of social media and often don’t find them necessary – why would they get an Instagram account when they can post photos on Facebook? While Facebook is a full-service social network, these newer, more specialized social media outlets are out of their reach.

Parents and working professionals have adapted fairly well to social media as it became obvious that having a Facebook account was becoming pretty universal. Although initially they struggled to understand why you would want to give up your privacy and share information so freely online, almost all of them have Facebook accounts, with moms using Facebook essentially as a newspaper for the grandparents and other adults using it to brag about their accomplishments. Both of my parents have Twitter accounts that they’re pretty active on – my dad, as a pretty well-known author in his circle, has many more followers than I do – and my mom has an Instagram account, mostly so she can like all of my posts.

Specialized social media is hit or miss with this demographic, but Facebook has become a pretty common way for people to connect with coworkers, neighbors and friends, and adults have jumped on board with that. While they may not be attached at the hip to their social media notifications or ahead of the curve when it comes to adopting new social networks, adults are generally on social media and proud of that fact. As they get older, however, chances are that they won’t continue to branch out as social media grows and changes. Facebook especially is familiar, and it’s a social outlet where most of their friends have accounts. While there are plenty of new social networks trying to rise in popularity, it will be hard for any to gain traction with adults.

On the other hand, the younger generation is beginning to consider Facebook as passé as MySpace. My younger sister, who’s currently a first-year in college, told me last year that no one in her high school really used Facebook anymore – it was all about Twitter. She used Twitter to communicate with her classmates about homework assignments or rides for prom, and plenty of her classmates tweeted every thought that came into their head much like my friends and I used to do with Facebook statuses when I was 15 years old, but her Facebook profile was a ghost town.

“There are too many moms on Facebook,” she told me. I guess that’s fair – while it’s okay if your friends’ parents see your statuses about being home for the summer and available for babysitting jobs, people won’t think you’re cool if your mom is the only one who comments on the witty things you post online. And while Facebook was created initially for college students to connect with each other, moms have latched onto Facebook as a way to share anecdotes about their children and photo albums with all of their friends online in a way that their coffee table photo album of baby photos just can’t do.

Twitter, with its fast-moving pace and ability to communicate short bursts of thought that are equal to today’s multi-tasking mind’s attention span, is much more up the alley of students in high school or early college. They don’t need the ability to have lengthy conversations via social media – teens have adapted to the 140-character limit that Twitter sets and can easily communicate what they need to say in short tweets or direct messages if they need to go private. What they care about more is the ability for others to share their witty thoughts with more people by retweeting or favoriting their tweets.

Instagram has a similar ability to condense communication by focusing on just one photo instead of a series of them. While Facebook allows you to upload albums with hundreds of photos, social media has trended towards quality instead of quantity. Where once you would upload an album or multiple videos from a concert you attended, the goal now is to capture one moment or 15-second video that represents the whole concert and get the most double-taps on that filtered photo. Instagram caters to short attention spans and it’s rare to see someone Instagram multiple photos in a row. In fact, I’ve unfollowed people who treat Instagram like Facebook, uploading four or five photos in a row without captions.

Finally, Snapchat and its ability to communicate using photos with captions and drawings captures this generation’s desire to send fleeting messages and use visuals. Conversations had on Snapchat seem to be different from those communicated through other mediums, like text messaging or Twitter. While you can definitely communicate worthwhile information through Snapchat, it’s mostly used as a commentary on what’s going on in the world around you through creative selfies. Snapchat recently released a major update allowing users to text and video chat, and it will be interesting to see how teens will adapt to these changes.

This generation is the social media generation – most of them can’t remember a world without the internet. Recently my sister heard the sound of dial-up internet on a YouTube video and asked me what that weird beeping sound was, and that’s pretty typical of her peers. They like specialized social networks that get straight to the point, condensing communication and catering to their desire to always have something new coming at them. Social media has become an integral part of their lives, with smartphones meaning that they can always stay connected to the internet. This is the target demographic that social networks aim for when they’re trying to build their audience – and it’ll stay that way, as this generation will remain highly involved in social media and what’s new.

Teens and even younger children are also quicker to adapt to new social networks as they arise. During my sophomore year of college, I worked as a nanny for a family with children in kindergarten and third grade. One day, I was sitting in my night class when an email notification popped up on the side of my screen: the third-grader I nannied had added me on Google+. I was barely active on Google+ myself, having created an account just to check it out and, not seeing many people I knew on it, had left it by the wayside. This elementary school girl, however, had plenty of friends and posted GIFs and articles on a daily basis. While I’m not sure if she’s still active on Google+, this showed me that she had no problem jumping on board with a new way to communicate online, and I don’t doubt that she, along with her friends, will continue to be ahead of the curve.

Social media has been adapted by different generations in different ways. While older generations often don’t find social networking to be something that they need, it’s hard to find a teenager who isn’t connected to social media 24/7. Similar to learning a new language, social media is easier to understand when you’re younger – and the younger generation is eager to jump on to these new social networks as they arise. As social media continues to change, it’ll be interesting to see if these generational trends towards adaptation will continue, or if anyone will be able to create a network that breaks the mold.

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