Old and Young Use Internet Differently

March 2, 2009

Americans who are part of Generation X are most likely to bank, shop and look for health information online, Baby Boomers are as likely as Generation Y to make travel reservations online, and members of the Silent Generation are proficient with email and are gaining ground online, according to surveys from the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project.


The Generations Online in 2009 (pdf) research, which was conducted between 2006 and 2008, specifically examines internet use by generation, and discovers big differences in online behaviors by age. Though 74% of all US adults are online, younger users ages 12-28 have embraced online applications that enable communicative, creative, and social uses, older users are more likely to engage in online activities that require some capital, such as travel reservations and online banking.

It also finds that though more than half of America’s online population is between ages 18-44,? larger percentages of older Americans are going online and doing more things there than they have in the past. The biggest increase in internet use since 2005 is in the 70-75 year-old age group. While just over one-fourth (26%) of 70-75 year olds were online in 2005, 45% of that age group is currently online.


Email Remains Most Popular

Instant messaging, social networking, and blogging have gained ground as communications tools, but email remains the most popular online activity, particularly among older internet users, the survey found.

Three quarters (74%) of internet users ages 64+ send and receive email, making email the most popular online activity for this age group. At the same time, email has lost some ground among teens. Some 89% of teens said they used email in 2004, but only 73% say they do now.

Younger Users Flock to Entertainment, SocNets

Teens and Gen Y (ages 18-32) are the most likely groups to use the internet for entertainment and for communicating with friends and family. These younger generations are significantly more likely than their older counterparts to seek entertainment through online videos, online games and virtual worlds, and they are also more likely to download music, Pew said.

Internet users ages 12-32 are more likely than older users to read other people’s blogs and to write their own, and they are also more likely than older generations to use social networking sites and to create profiles on those sites.

Younger internet users often use personal blogs to update friends on their lives, and they use social networking sites to keep track of and communicate with friends. Teen and Gen Y users are also significantly more likely than older generations to send instant messages to friends.

Teens Like Games

By a large margin, teen internet users’ favorite online activity is game playing, Pew found. Some 78% of 12-17 year-old internet users play games online, compared with 73% of online teens who email, the second most popular activity for this age group. Online teens are also significantly more likely to play games than any other generation, including Gen Y, only half (50%) of whom play online games.

Older Generations Research, Shop, Bank

Compared with teens and Gen Y, older generations use the internet less for socializing and entertainment and more as a tool for information searches, emailing, and buying products. In particular, older internet users are significantly more likely than younger ones to look online for health information. Health questions drive internet users age 73 and older to the internet just as frequently as they drive Gen Y users, outpacing teens by a significant margin. Researching health information is the third most popular online activity with the most senior age group, after email and online search.

Internet users ages 33-72 are also significantly more likely than younger users to look online for religious information and are more likely to visit government websites to search for information.

Gen X Shops Online

Gen X (ages 33-44) continues to lead in online shopping. Fully 80% of Gen X internet users buy products online, compared with 71% of internet users ages 18-32. Interest in online shopping is significantly lower among the youngest and oldest groups; 38% of online teens buy products online, as do 56% of internet users ages 64-72 and 47% of internet users age 73 and older.

Gen Xers have also maintained their edge in online banking, as they are significantly more likely than any other generation to do their banking online (67%). As Gen Y users grow older, however, they have become much more likely to bank online as well: The percentage of online Gen Y who do banking online rose from 38% in 2005 to 57% in 2008. There has been no significant growth among older generations when it comes to banking online.

Online Video, Travel, Research Pursued Equally

A few online activities previously dominated by either older generations or younger generations are now being done more equally across all generations under 73 years old, the research found. One such activity is downloading videos, an activity that in 2005 was significantly more popular with teens and Gen Y than with any other generation.

Gen X is catching up, however, with 31% saying they download videos as of 2007, compared with 38% of Gen Y. Generations at the oldest end of the spectrum also became significantly more likely than they had been two years before to download videos. Some 13% of G.I. Generation internet users (age 73+) reported downloading videos, up from 1% in 2005, and another 13% of the online Silent Generation (ages 64-72) say they download videos, up from 8% in 2005.

Perhaps less surprisingly, Gen Y is also gaining significant ground in activities previously dominated by Gen X and older. In addition to becoming more likely to do banking online, Gen Y has also grown more likely to make travel reservations online. In 2005, half (50%) of Gen Y internet users had booked travel arrangements online and in 2008 that number rose to 65%. During the same period, the percentages of Gen X and older generations to make online travel reservations remained about the same.

The workplace online network is expanding to include more Gen Y users, according to Pew, as internet users ages 18-32 are going online more than ever to do research for their jobs. In 2007, 51% said they used the internet for their jobs other than for email, compared with 44% of the same group in 2005.

Broadband Access Doubles and Triples

Since 2005, broadband access has increased dramatically in the United States across all age groups, but older groups are still largely unconnected to high-speed internet. For Americans ages 12-24, broadband access has increased by about half; for 25-64-year-olds, it has about doubled; and for seniors 65 and older, broadband access has more than tripled.

The percentage of the oldest age group to have broadband at home is still very low, however, at just 16%. However, broadband access continues to increase for all age groups, Pew expects an corresponding increase in overall activity, particularly among the trailing older generations.

About the research: Pew defines the generational cohorts in the following way:


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