MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Now, they say it takes a village to raise a child, but maybe you just need a few moms in your corner. Every week, we check in with a diverse group of parents for their commonsense parenting advice.
But today, don't be shocked if, increasingly, that advice comes via Skype, Twitter or Facebook. Now, I'm sure a lot of people don't think of mom - let alone grandma - when they think of Twitter, but it might interest you to know that more and more seniors are now tweeting, emailing, texting and using Facebook. In fact, more than half of American adults age 65 and older are now online, according to a new study by the Pew Research Center.
Grandparents, in particular, say getting online helps them stay connected to family, including young grandchildren. We wanted to hear more about this trend, so we decided to skip right past Mom and Dad and go right to Grandma to hear what they're doing online.
I'm joined now by Barbara Graham. You'll remember her. She's a grandmother of two and the author of "Eye of My Heart." That is a collection of essays about the joys and some struggles of grandparenthood. Denise Crenshaw is also a grandmother of two. She came to us through Connected Living. That's a program that helps teach seniors about technology. She graduated from that program's class and now she's teaching computer classes to other seniors in the Washington, D.C. area. Also with us, Ellen Breslau. OK. True confession. She's not a grandmother, but she is a mom of two and she's the editor in chief of Grandparents.com.
BARBARA GRAHAM: Thank you.
DENISE CRENSHAW: Hi.
ELLEN BRESLAU: Hello.
GRAHAM: And good to be here.
CRENSHAW: Thank you.
MARTIN: So, Barb Graham, let me start with you. A few years ago, you actually wrote a piece called Why I Hate Skype.
GRAHAM: That's right. It was on Grandparents.com.
MARTIN: But your grandchildren now live in Europe, so have you had a change of heart?
GRAHAM: I have had a change of heart and, really, there are two reasons why I wrote that. For one thing, when I started Skyping, the technology was not as good as it is now and, basically, the sound quality was underwater and so were the videos. However, it's much, much better now, but really, the real reason was I wanted flesh. Now, it's wonderful. I tell her stories. I read her books. We draw together, so it's shifted tremendously.
MARTIN: But you wanted flesh. I understand that. You wanted the hugs, you want the squeezes.
GRAHAM: Well, Skyping is not a substitute for hugging, but it's a really good placeholder.
MARTIN: OK. Well, Denise Crenshaw, you actually have a background in computers as I understand it.
CRENSHAW: Yes, I do.
MARTIN: You once worked with those big mainframes.
CRENSHAW: Yes. I started out back in the '70s when they were big mainframe computers and then they came out with smaller machines, word processors, but they were still large.
MARTIN: But the new technology - that doesn't puzzle you. You're not intimated by it.
CRENSHAW: No. No, I'm not. I'm not intimated because I've been using technology for a long time and I keep up with the times, so...
MARTIN: What do you use it for now?
CRENSHAW: Right now, I use it for emailing. I don't do many videos, but I do send pictures and receive pictures with my family and my grandchildren and my daughter. I also use it for typing up documents. I use it for several things. I text people. I also use Genie and Facebook to stay in connection with my family members.
MARTIN: Do people find it unusual or odd that you are as wired as you are?
CRENSHAW: I don't think so because I've always used the computer.
MARTIN: You're an early adopter?
MARTIN: OK. But, Ellen Breslau, I mentioned earlier that more than half of Americans over the age of 65 are now online. You're the editor in chief of Grandparents.com. What are you noticing? And are there some impediments that you find for older Americans to get connected?
BRESLAU: Well, we've definitely seen that people come to Facebook more often. In the past year, our Facebook numbers have sort of gone through the roof, like by 200 or more percent. We started off last year with 4,000 Facebook fans. This year, we've got 33,000. So it seems to me that people really are beginning to venture out. Grandparents are getting comfortable with email and going online and they are really branching out and going further because they really love this connectedness that they're feeling.
MARTIN: One of the impediments to more seniors getting online is learning how to do it. I mean, everybody's got that joke about, oh, I need my grandson or my granddaughter to come over to set my VCR. Now, of course, I'm dating myself. But is that generally the way that seniors do adapt to the technology or are there other ways? And are there impediments that you've seen that would make it hard for seniors to get online if they'd like to?
BRESLAU: You know, it seems like technology is becoming easier. So smartphones are easier to navigate. Going online is easier to navigate. But, certainly, there definitely are impediments. Not every website is easy as clicking around. You know, not everything is intuitive when you're online. So I think that grandparents still are asking grandchildren and children to come over and show them and, you know, I know from my mother, once we showed her how to get places, she was off and running.
MARTIN: And, Denise, what about you? What have you noticed?
CRENSHAW: Well, I've noticed with teaching the seniors through the Connected Living Program - what I saw is that some of them have a hard time understanding the connection. So what we do with Connected Living is explain to them very basically how everything connects, like your email is like a postal address, you know, things like that. And when you go into a website that's like the actual address and if you don't connect the dot-com or the dot-net, it's like leaving off the zip code. So that's how we explain it to the seniors, and they seem to understand that.
MARTIN: You draw the connection to kind of the physical world, the online world.
MARTIN: Are any of them scared, like they're afraid if they hit a button wrong something will blow up or something like that?
CRENSHAW: They were all very scared, not thinking that they could do it or they were going to break the machine. But we tell them with Connected Living, we say you will not break the machine. You know, it might get stuck or you get jam, you can hit escape, you can shut it down. And by pretty much the third or fourth week they start to feel a little more comfortable using it.
MARTIN: Barbara, that leads me to a question too, which is I do wonder whether part of the reason that more seniors don't get engaged with technology is that the technology companies act like they don't exist, for example, by making it easier if you have some physical disability, or even frankly, in the advertising. How often do you see seniors included in advertising around technology? I guess I just wonder, what I'm wondering is, is there something that kind of makes you feel like it isn't for you?
GRAHAM: Not so much. I mean I think that technology is so much in the water that we drink at this point. I do think as new things come along that's become the next new big thing, like when Twitter started, it can be a little bit daunting at first. But then you sort of, you know, you put your toe in and really the devices are getting smarter in terms of, you know, advertisers, you know, making a play for older adults, they don't. That's the nature of the business. But most of the people I know are in it all the time.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're talking about using social media to stay connected with family and friends, particularly grandparents. I'm speaking with Ellen Breslau, editor of Grandparents.com, Denise Crenshaw, grandmother of two, she's actually teaching seniors to use and get engaged with technology and social media, and Barbara Graham, also a grandmother of two and editor of the book "Eye of My Heart," which is about the joys and occasional pains of being a grandparent.
But Barbara Graham, you're really into the social media. But you also say that there are things you need to be careful about. Talk about that if you would.
GRAHAM: Yeah. My son is very careful and honestly, I don't blame him about posting photographs of his two young daughters online. And so I think grandparents really need to take their cues with technology as with everything else from the parents and respect the parents' decision and judgment about how they want to use the media. So we do a lot of Skyping and he sends me a lot of photographs but I don't post photographs of my granddaughters online per his wishes. Some parents feel fine about it but we have a public forum that we never had before, it's a whole different world, so I think some parents are being cautious and, you know, and I think that may be wise.
MARTIN: Ellen Breslau, have you ever written a piece about this or has this come up on your site?
BRESLAU: Yes, we definitely have had many pieces on Internet safety and online safety. You know, it's something that you really need to walk that line. I agree with Barbara, you really need to listen to the parents and hear what they have to say. We are in a world that's completely like the Wild West - that we don't know the boundaries yet, we don't know where we're going exactly what this, and don't know how safe everything is. Not to be an alarmist, but really, when you're talking about young children you have to be very careful, and also for seniors, giving out personal information. You know, we've done quite a few pieces and have one coming up on scans and online scams. And so now there's this whole new world out there for people to connect but also people get taken advantage of. So to know exactly what you're dealing with and know not to give out personal information.
MARTIN: But you know what Ellen, though, that's almost de rigueur online to be giving - being asked personal information. I mean you're always being asked personal information because people want to, you know, you want to get coupons for this thing or you want to, you know, even to use some of the sites you have to give out personal information.
BRESLAU: So true. But I think it really depends on the personal information they're asking. Certainly, if anyone's ever asking for your Social Security number, that's a big flag. For your passwords, that's a big flag. To make a password is one thing but to ask for your existing password is something else. So I think there are these lines here that are very subtle. You're right. There's a lot of information that we're giving, but when you're creating something you need to really read and see what they're asking you.
MARTIN: Denise, what about that and the seniors with whom you're working, are there any things that you are concerned about?
CRENSHAW: Being that this is a beginner's computer class, we decided to, you know, only take them as far as they needed to go right now because we're really going to give another class to address that because we don't want them to start giving out their passwords and things like that.
MARTIN: Do you say that; don't tell give - don't people your passwords? Just...
CRENSHAW: We tell them that. It's like don't even tell me your password. I tell them that's just like their bank account numbers and you don't want to give that information out. Right now we are steering them from going into all those different websites, putting in their information, because they're not that experienced in it yet.
MARTIN: But, you know, but to that end, the other thing that I wanted to ask you about, the Pew Research Center found that households with incomes less than $30,000 per year are less likely to have access to the Internet and, you know, there are whole other sort of markers of people who are less likely to have access, and so Denise, are you finding that? And how are seniors getting access?
MARTIN: Are their communities wired, for example...
CRENSHAW: We are...
MARTIN: Can they get into the library or...
CRENSHAW: Oh, Garfield Terrace Senior building, we are definitely wired.
MARTIN: That's a neighborhood in Washington, D.C.
CRENSHAW: And we have six computers in the building. We also have a computer lab which they had access to go and use. We have printers. And once they complete the program they are in line to get a computer at a very reasonable cost.
MARTIN: That's exciting. Well, that's exciting.
CRENSHAW: So they will all have the opportunity to be connected.
MARTIN: Ellen, I'm wondering Ellen Breslau, I'm wondering if I don't know if this is the constituency of people who tend to connect with your site, but are you finding access to be a problem, particularly these days where there are a lot of economic, you know, difficulties out there? For example, there is a young man who I, you know, correspond with who, you know, tutors my kids occasionally and he doesn't have consistent Wi-Fi access because it's just too expensive. He doesn't have a data plan so he relies upon sort of public Wi-Fi, and I'm wondering if there are a lot of seniors who were in a similar situation.
BRESLAU: You know, I think there are a lot of seniors in that situation. We don't tend to hear from them because we are wired so that automatically kind of shuts them out. But we have heard from some seniors saying that they go online at the library or at local senior center and that's how they get their computer access.
MARTIN: Do you have any other advice, in the time that we have left, for people who are perhaps hearing our conversation who are not yet online, but to say to themselves, gee, that sounds pretty good, I'd like to try that, I'd like to find other ways to connect with family members? It seems to me that this is kind of the next wave. Like you remember that over the last sort of decade parents figured out that they could email their kids who are away at school...
MARTIN: And they didn't have to be there on the phone and they could...
MARTIN: ...perhaps have conversations that might have been a little harder to have where they didn't have to wait for the kids to come in at midnight, you know, to stay up, and now we're kind of in the next phase of that. So Ellen, do you have any advice?
BRESLAU: I do. And my advice really, which I think we would all say is, don't be afraid, that really nothing can go wrong. It's exploring and it's clicking around and getting comfortable. And once you get that connection to your grandchildren, to your children, it really opens up a whole new world. My daughter, who is seven, calls her grandmother on the cell phone all the time. Just picks up her iPhone, calls her grandmother, goes onto the computer, Skypes her, no problem. They are in touch far more often because my mother knows how to use technology and my daughter knows how to use technology and so it really has opened up this whole new world. So beyond anything, don't be afraid and ask for help really, because once you get it you'll really get it.
MARTIN: Denise, any advice?
CRENSHAW: I agree. That's the thing, not to be afraid of the technology and feel free to ask questions. Also...
MARTIN: But see - but can I just say this though, you're nice. I mean I think sometimes people make people feel stupid for asking questions. And I don't want to generalize or stereotype people, but I think particularly sometimes people feel free to patronize seniors in a way that they might not other people - if I can say that, you know.
CRENSHAW: Well, you know, what I teach them also that you can always go, there are how-to videos. If you want to know how to use something you can always key into the YouTube how-to videos and you usually pretty much find everything you're looking for. You just have to jump in there. You know, once you get started I think it's easy.
MARTIN: It's on, right?
MARTIN: What's the first thing you teach seniors? What's the first thing you would want someone to know who has very little exposure to technology? I mean but bearing in mind, a lot of people have never worked in an office, OK?
CRENSHAW: That's true.
MARTIN: And so it's just not a part of, they might have pre-office, right?
MARTIN: Or their working years did not include an office and a lot of the innovations in personal technology occurred after their working years were over. So for somebody like that what's the first thing you think they should learn?
CRENSHAW: I think the first thing they should learn is basically how to go into Google to maybe view a video, because that really gets them excited, and once they get into that they're open for it.
MARTIN: So once they learn how to find stuff out...
MARTIN: ...everything opens up.
MARTIN: OK. Barbara, final thoughts from you? What are your words of wisdom?
GRAHAM: Yes. Really, not to be intimidated or you just risk losing such a precious opportunity, especially for long distance grandparents who are not able to see their grandchildren very often it affords you this way to stay connected between visits to make that imprint and impression on our grandchildren that we so long to make. So for all grandparents it's great. For long distance grandparents it's especially important. And really, you know, as older adults we need to learn to speak the language of our grandchildren if we want to communicate with them and this is their language. And it's pretty exciting and fun.
MARTIN: Barbara Graham is a grandmother of two. She is the editor of "Eye of My Heart," a collection of essays about being a grandparent. Also with us, Denise Crenshaw, she's also a grandmother of two. She came to us through Connected Living. That's an organization that helps connect seniors to technology. They were both here in our studios in Washington, D.C. With us from our NPR New York bureau, Ellen Breslau, editor-in-chief of Grandparents.com.
Ladies, thank you all so much for speaking with us.
GRAHAM: Thanks, Michel.
CRENSHAW: Thanks, Michel.
BRESLAU: Thank you so much.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.