For the first time, more than half of Americans age 65 and older are using the internet, reports Pew Research Center, which conducted a survey of more than 2,000 American seniors.

The survey found that 53 percent of older Americans either browse the net or use email. And while this number pales in comparison to younger demographics (93 percent of Millennials and 89 percent of Gen Xers are online), the trend shouldn’t be dismissed. “After several years of very little growth among this group, these gains are significant,” says Kathryn Zickuhr and Mary Madden of Pew, who summarized the report.

A breakdown of internet usage by age. Graph via pewinternet.org

According to the survey, email remains the dominant platform among seniors who regularly use the web, with 86 percent having an account and 48 percent logging on daily. The popularity of sites like Facebook is also growing among seniors, with 34 percent logging onto social networks and 18 percent doing so “on a typical day.”

American seniors are also becoming more mobile – in the technological sense. The survey found that 69 percent of older Americans report owning a cellphone, compared with 57 percent two years ago. The study did not differentiate between feature and smart phones.

A breakdown of social network usage by age. Graph via pewinternet.org.

Pew’s data, combined with the 2011 census finding that the U.S. median age has risen to 37.2, indicates that the 65+ online crowd only stands to grow.

What does this trend mean for marketers and the brands they represent?

Forrester Research concludes that older people are more likely to be referred to products by traditional media (TV, radio) and rely on personal emails to direct them to sites. In other words, older Americans are late adopters and more cautious.

But it might be wiser to focus on the data. As CBC radio host Terry O’Reilly points out in a podcast on ageism in advertising, seniors spend more money than any other demographic in nearly every category. That’s even true of tech, according to a 2010 report by Forrester.

As internet adoption rates climb along with the proliferation of mobile devices, expect to see advertising campaigns begin treating seniors as target audiences rather than awkward afterthoughts. The only question is when marketers will wise up.

In the meantime, here are a couple of examples of how marketing to seniors can be done effectively and with respect:

This iPad 2 ad focuses on function rather than “gadget fetish,” says Todd Wasserman in a Mashable article about marketing to seniors. It’s effective because the ad combines an older narrator with shots of the endless applications that iPads have, while avoiding the trope of featuring grey-haired people enjoying their twilight years.

Earlier this year Kraft launched its “Old Birds New Tweets” campaign in celebration of Kraft Macaroni and Cheese’s 75th Anniversary. While not aimed directly at seniors, the campaign does embrace all the stereotypes of older people and technology in an overtly playful manner. What do you think, does Kraft pull it off? Let us know in the comments below.