COLUMBIA — Sam Brayer, 19, has many friends on Facebook, typical for a college student. Perhaps not as typical, among her many Facebook friends are her parents, Lori and Rich Brayer.
“When I found out my mom had a Facebook, I was, like, ‘I’m so excited! I’m going to friend her!’” Sam said.
Her parents exemplify a growing trend of older people participating on Facebook, once a college-only social networking site. In the past four years, the number of online adults with at least one profile on a social networking site has risen from 8 percent in 2005 to 35 percent in 2009, according to the Pew Internet and American Life Project.
For computer users, it's certainly hard to avoid the ubiquitous Facebook, which has about 175 million users who have returned to the site in the past month. Members keep in touch with friends and co-workers, post photographs and links to things that interest them, and access a variety of networking tools.
Sam said her parents use Facebook to connect with old friends and colleagues. Although neither parent fully understands how to use it, she said, they’re learning.
“He (her father) writes on people’s walls — he’s pretty good with that,” Sam said. “And he commented on my status the other day. That was impressive.”
Rich Brayer, 59, likes to use Facebook to check in on his daughter. He’s even added some of her friends and shares pictures with them, though Sam said he sends them in a message because posting photos is still foreign to him. He likes the connection Facebook brings him to his daughter’s life.
“Sam thinks of Dad as a dork, loser, doofus, etc.,” Rich Brayer said. But “on Facebook, her friends think I am hip, cool, funny and very 'with it.'”
“In short, by being on Facebook," he said, "a parent may annoy a child without leaving psychological scars.”
Facebook was created in 2004 by Mark Zuckerberg, who, at the time, was a student at Harvard. In the early stages, only college students were allowed to create accounts. In 2005, the site adjusted its policy to accommodate high school students, allowing them to join networks for their schools. In 2006, Facebook became open to the public, and networking options expanded to include workplaces, organizations and cities.
With Facebook open to the public, adults are finding new uses for the site. Bill Horner, the 40-year-old director of undergraduate studies for the political science department at MU, has recently opened a Facebook account to gather support for Relay for Life, an American Cancer Society fundraiser in which he participates annually.
Horner has added an application to his profile that allows people to make donations to his Relay for Life team. He also posts daily updates and messages about the relay on his profile. Although Horner has only had his Facebook account since February, he said he is beginning to understand the ways people of any age can use it as a networking tool.
“I think the basic things it has to offer — communicating with friends, etc. – are something everyone is interested in doing, regardless of age,” Horner said.
Vickie Toalson, 59, of Columbia uses Facebook to keep track of family and friends. Toalson, who has had an account for several months, was able to reconnect with several cousins with whom she had not communicated for 25 years. She first heard about the site through her daughter-in-law, who uses Facebook to promote events at her husband’s restaurant, D. Rowe’s.
Although her husband and son remain skeptical about joining the site, Toalson uses it regularly.
“I think adults are drawn to Facebook because of curiosity,” she said. “They’re hearing their friends talking about it. Older people are more cautious about fraud, but it is a good way to communicate with people and find people.”
For Louise Ann Routledge, 46, of Columbia, Facebook gives her a boost of confidence.
“There’s no judgment with Facebook," Routledge said. "There’s no nerves involved at all. It's freedom of speech and freedom of emotional sharing without judgment or fear.”
She joined this year after a friend recommended the site. “It's fun to become a part of it and reconnect with people you’ve grown up with,” Routledge said.
With all the influx of older Facebook users that began when the company widened its virtual entryway three years ago, the younger generation is getting "friend requests" from parents and even grandparents. Tayler Ehrhardt, 19, doesn't like that older relatives and family friends have joined her on Facebook.
"I thought it was only introduced to college networks," she said. "And now it's like the new MySpace. Anyone can have it."
Ehrhardt's parents aren't on Facebook, but some of her friends' parents are, she said. "It's weird when I get on and see that people's parents have updated their profile 15 times today," she said. "They're on it more than I am."
Ehrhardt also said she wouldn't want a family friend or older relative to misinterpret something on her page and view her in a different light.
Sam Brayer said she’s aware of her parents’ presence on Facebook, and it affects what she posts. “I don’t think I’d ever put anything up that would upset them,” she said.
But Sam said she appreciates having her parents there to help keep her page clean, because she knows many employers have the ability to view profiles.
“Now I’m just more conscious of what I’m putting out there on the Internet,” she said.
Curtis Auffenberg, 19, said having his mother as a Facebook friend affects his actions on the site. He said he more closely monitors the posts he makes on his page — and on other people's pages.
“It doesn't affect what I do on Facebook as much as it affects how I do it,” he said. “I choose my words carefully, and I try not to do anything that would embarrass myself in front of my family.”
Auffenberg’s mother joined the site at the beginning of the school year, and since then, he has become friends with more than 20 of his adult family members.
In addition to using Facebook to communicate with their children, many parents are using Facebook as a way to chronicle their children's lives.
Routledge is among the many parents using Facebook to keep friends updated about her children. She has twin daughters, Monikah and Ronikah, 11, and she uses the site to keep people posted about their lives.
"The photos are the best," she said. "I can keep people filled in on my family and my life and peek in on theirs."
Using Facebook as a way to update family and friends about the lives of children has become so popular that in September 2007, Womico Inc., a Canadian company, created Babybook, a Facebook application that allows parents to create a profile for their child and interact with other parents.
Eddy Kang, managing director of Womico, said the application was created with the same structure as other social applications, where users can post on walls, add photos and send virtual gifts to their favorite babies.
“The idea came about as I realized how proud parents were of their children and how they loved to show them off by keeping friends and family updated with every new experience," Kang said.
“Since it's difficult to e-mail and call every individual with busy schedules these days, I thought it would be a great idea for parents to post information, pictures, milestones, etc. when they had an opportunity to do so," Kang said. "And people could just visit the baby's profile to get updated."
Kang said the application's popularity on Facebook has grown; there are more than 40,000 unique monthly users, 90 percent of whom are women between age 18 and 34. Babybook also was launched recently on another popular social networking site, Bebo.
For Routledge, Facebook does more for mothers than allow them to post photos.
"It gives these moms a feeling of community," she said, "and not being alone."