November 10, 2021 | News | Interview

Do Migrants Over 50 Use Social Media to Maintain Friendships?

© Sofia Gil-Clavel

Sofia Gil-Clavel, PhD-Student at the Laboratory of Digital and Computational Demography at the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research (MPIDR) compared survey data and Facebook data to study the association between over-50-years-old’s characteristics and the likelihood of having close friends offline and online.

Ms. Gil-Clavel, in general, do all people over 50 use social media to maintain close friendships?

Not necessarily. What we found is that older migrants may be the ones that compensate for the potential lack of in-person close friendships with digital relationships. This is because migrants who use the internet are, on average, less likely to have close friends to interact with offline, but migrants who are Facebook users are more likely to have close friends online. This may be the result of a selection effect: migrants who have fewer friends offline are more likely to use social media to establish or maintain digital friendships.

Why are you interested in close social networks of adults over 50?

We are interested in this topic because older adults are a key demographic group that could potentially benefit from access to digital technologies and because digital technologies can be used to help older people maintain family and friends’ networks regardless of geographical distance. This also means that digital technologies may help older adults access social capital and reap its benefits, such as mental health and life satisfaction.

You compared survey data and data from Facebook to answer your research question, why?

We used data from both sources to quantitatively study the association between characteristics such as gender, age, and educational level, and the likelihood of having a network of close friends offline and online. We wanted to understand heterogeneities among different groups of people who have close friends in relation to whether they do or do not use the internet or social media.

How did you compare these two data sets?

We used a statistical property that has been ignored by other researchers using aggregate-level Facebook data before: for the logistic regression model, the parameter estimates and standard errors are the same regardless of whether you use individual-level outcomes, or you aggregate and classify these outcomes into categories. The advantage of using this method is that it allows us to use standard statistical models to assess propensities for different groups, even though we do not have individual-level data, only aggregated data from Facebook. This also allows us to compare data from Facebook and from SHARE (Survey of Health, Aging and Retirement in Europe), a longitudinal survey representative of the population over 50 years old in Europe.

What are the advantages and disadvantages of each data set?

The advantage of using SHARE is that it is a representative sample of people over 50 in Europe, but it does not include information about social media use, only internet use. Facebook is not a source representative of the whole population, but data about platform use is available across demographic groups at a fine level of geographic and temporal granularity. We took the best of both worlds by comparing Facebook and SHARE data.

What kind of research is needed in the future for studying social media and how it relates to offline relationships?

Emilio Zagheni, Valeria Bordone, and I expect future research to further develop the combined use of surveys and social media data to expand our knowledge of social networks. This can be done in at least three main ways. First, researchers can continue to combine survey data and information passively collected from social media to assess the reliability of different types of social media-based measures of socio-demographic characteristics. Second, more and more representative surveys are including questions on access to, and use of, digital platforms. These surveys can shed new light on online behaviors. Third, social media can be used as a tool for data collection and survey participant recruitment. Developing approaches to filter out biases in order to get a picture of the overall population (beyond those who use the platform) is a key active area of research at the moment.

Original Publication

Gil-Clavel, S., Zagheni, E., Bordone, V.: Close Social Networks Among Older Adults: The Online and Offline Perspectives. Popul Res Policy Rev (2021). DOI: 10.1007/s11113-021-09682-3


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The Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research (MPIDR) in Rostock is one of the leading demographic research centers in the world. It's part of the Max Planck Society, the internationally renowned German research society.