January 14, 2009

Adults and Social Network Websites

One third (35%) of American adult internet users have a profile on an online social network site, four times as many as four years ago, but still much lower than the 65% of online American teens who use social networks

The share of adult internet users who have a profile on an online social network site has more than quadrupled in the past four years — from 8% in 2005 to 35% now,1 according to the Pew Internet & American Life Project’s December 2008 tracking survey.

While media coverage and policy attention focus heavily on how children and young adults use social network sites, adults still make up the bulk of the users of these websites. Adults make up a larger portion of the US population than teens, which is why the 35% number represents a larger number of users than the 65% of online teens2 who also use online social networks.3

Still, younger online adults are much more likely than their older counterparts to use social networks, with 75% of adults 18-24 using these networks, compared to just 7% of adults 65 and older.  At its core, use of online social networks is still a phenomenon of the young.

Specifically, our findings suggest that:

Young people are much more likely than older adults to use social networks.

  • 75% of online adults 18-24 have a profile on a social network site
  • 57% of online adults 25-34 have a profile on a social network
  • 30% of online adults 35-44 have one
  • 19% of online 45 to 54 year olds have a profile
  • 10% of online 55 to 64 year olds have a profile
  • 7% of online adults 65 and older have a profile

Overall, personal use of social networks seems to be more prevalent than professional use of networks, both in the orientation of the networks that adults choose to use as well as the reasons they give for using the applications. According to May 2008 survey findings that are released here for the first time:

  • 50% of adult social network users have a profile on MySpace
  • 22% have a profile on Facebook
  • 6% have a profile on LinkedIn

Online social network applications are mainly used for explaining and maintaining personal networks, and most adults, like teens, are using them to connect with people they already know.  

  • 89% use their online profiles to keep up with friends
  • 57% use their profile to make plans with friends
  • 49% use them to make new friends

Other uses: organize with other people for an event, issue or cause; flirt with someone; promote themselves or their work; make new business contacts

When users do use social networks for professional and personal reasons, they will often maintain multiple profiles, generally on different sites.

  • 51% of social network users have two or more online profiles
  • 43% have only one online profile

Among social network users with multiple profiles:

  • 83% have those profiles on different sites
  • 17% have those profiles on one site
  • 24% have multiple profiles so they can keep up with friends on different sites
  • 19% have multiple profiles to separate the personal and the professional
  • 6% just use different sites
  • 4% have different profiles for different parts of their personality
  • 4% have older profiles on sites they do not use anymore

Most, but not all adult social network users are privacy conscious:

  • 60% of adult social network users restrict access to their profiles so that only their friends can see it.
  • 36% of social network users allow anyone to see their online profile
  • 58% of adult social network users restrict access to certain content within their profile
  • 43% of adults think it would be pretty easy for someone to find out who they are from their profile; 23% of teens say it would be pretty easy
  • 33% of adults with profiles think that they would have to work at it, but that someone could eventually find out who they are; 40% of teens say the same
  • 20% of adults think that it would be difficult for someone to find out who they are; 36% of teens say it would be difficult for someone to find out who they are.

This data memo is based on two surveys. The overall usage of social network sites data was gathered in a national phone survey fielded from November 19 to December 20, 2008 among 2,253 Americans, including 1,650 internet users. The margin of error in that sample is plus or minus 3 percentage points. The main findings on adults’ usage of social network sites come from a survey of 2,251 adults between April 8 to May 11, 2008, among a sample of adults, 18 and older. Some 328 respondents in that survey were social network users and the margin of error in that subsample is plus or minus 6 percentage points.

  1. The 35% data point and basic demographic information about social network users is from Pew Internet Project’s December 2008 Survey. All other data in the report is from the Project’s May 2008 survey, unless otherwise noted.
  2. This teen data point is from our Gaming and Civic Engagement Survey of Teens fielded from November 2007 through February 2008. n=1102 parent child pairs and the margin of error is +/- 3% for online teens.
  3. We define online social networks as spaces on the internet where users can create a profile and connect that profile to others (individuals or entities) to create a personal network.