“One day when I logged onto Facebook I immediately saw that one of my 90 friends had changed relationship status from ’Single’ to ‘In a Relationship’ When I looked closely I got a surprise: it was my 62-year-old mother.” This anecdote told by British publicist Alison Tyler is not an uncommon occurrence as a growing number of elderly people are discovering online social networks.

The phenomenon has reached Germany and led to the creation of a new word in the language: Gruscheln. Its meaning is the equivalent of the word “Poke” on Facebook’s website and is formed from the words Gruss, which means greet, and Kuscheln, which means cuddle.

Gruscheln allows members of a social network to quickly greet each other at the click of an icon.

Women over 55 are the fastest growing age group on social networks right now. The 13 to 25-year-olds still make up the biggest group but that may change if trends continue. Online platforms are actively seeking out the older generation of surfers, according to Facebook marketing, and are trying to make it easier for them to keep in contact with their kids who often live far from home.

The company behind Germany’s biggest social contact website, VZ Netzwerke, have noticed the growth in older members. “Best and Golden Age members are becoming ever more present,” says a company spokesman. So, a growing number of German social network users are faced with the question of what they should do when their mother wants to become their online friend? Do you really want your mother to post comments on your latest party photos such as “You promised you would study!” And what about the killer question: “Who is the young man who wrote to you?” It is a good idea to put thoughtful consideration into accepting your mother’s, aunt’s or grandmother’s request to become a friend, according to communication and media expert Wolfgang Reissmann from the University of Erfurt in Germany.

“Before you do that you should ask yourself what side you want to show your parents and what side you don’t. The issue is about setting borders,” says Reissmann.

Results of a study conducted by the University of Leipzig indicate that the majority of German teenagers and young adults mainly use social networks to communicate with friends. The study involved 6,588 users of the internet portal Schueler VZ aged between 12 and 19 years. Ninety-five per cent said that communicating with friends was “important” or “very important.” “Teenagers are using networks like MySpace or Facebook as spaces to display their identities and get in contact with their peers,” writes researcher Danah Michele Boyd from Berkley University in California. “Teenagers like to gossip, flirt, make jokes, swap information or just hang out together.” Reissmann believes parents should talk with their children before sending a request to be a friend. “Parent-child relationships are more symmetrical these days and some teenagers won’t have a problem with their parents looking at their party snapshots.” However, they have a right to be left alone, he says. “It’s just like in real life: you wouldn’t think of going with them to a nightclub without asking first.” To prevent situations where users with parents as friends are afraid to upload their embarrassing photographs, Facebook has introduced a category system. Members can decide which friends will see which photos such as who will see the aftermath of a terrible hangover.

Facebook members are also discussing the issue in a dedicated forum called “Mum, Get off Facebook!” Another forum has gathered together “those who believe their Mum should get off Facebook and into the kitchen.”