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New Ways for Staying Connected

By Liz Lightfoot, Associate Professor and Director of the PhD program at the University of Minnesota School of Social Work

Social networking websites, such as Facebook, allow users to create personal profiles, become friends with other users, and post updates, photos, videos, or news stories that their friends can see. Social networking sites also provide opportunities for users to join groups, such as alumni clubs, religious groups, or interest groups, or to become fans of local organizations and establishments. These sites also allow users an easy way to organize events.

Its founders originally established Facebook in 2004 as a way for college students to see photos of their classmates. When it became available to the general public in 2006, its number of users skyrocketed. Currently over 600 million users worldwide have Facebook accounts. People over age 55 are the fastest growing users of the network.

Some groups have attempted to establish senior-only sites, but older people rejected them. People over age 55 prefer using websites where they can interact with people of all generations. Many grandparents use it to keep in touch with their grandchildren who live far away. Others use Facebook to reconnect with high-school classmates, network professionally, or organize family reunions. For people who live a long way from family or who have difficulty traveling, social networking has opened up a new avenue for staying connected. These tools can be particularly beneficial for the many older people living alone, who might otherwise become isolated.

In addition to Face-book, other social networking sites exist and new social networking sites are continuously being developed. Twitter , with 200 million users, is a social networking and microblogging service that allows users to send short messages, otherwise known as tweets, to members of their social network. Twitter proved important in the recent Egyptian protests, as the protesters used the network for organizing rallies and sharing protest information. LinkedIn is a social networking website that focuses exclusively on professional networking, and members often use it to recruit employees or seek jobs. LinkedIn currently has over 100 million users. Another useful social networking site is MyHeritage, which provides a means for sharing genealogical information.

For all of these sites, some concerns about privacy and safety exist. Some users unfamiliar with the privacy settings of these websites put up too much personal information on these sites, leaving them vulnerable to information theft. Social networking also provides a new venue for stalking or bullying. Users of social networking need to spend some time learning about the privacy controls and should be careful in sharing personal information or becoming friends with people they don’t know or trust.

Despite these concerns, social networking can be a big help in staying connected with friends and family and what’s going on in the world.

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