Written by Morgan Van Vleck, MSW candidate 2022, Masters Research Fellow in Aging, Harvey A. Friedman Center for Aging
More older adults are using social media sites such as Facebook, Tik Tok, Twitter, Instagram, and Zoom. The growth of older users on these sites during COVID-19 has revealed how social media can be a substitute for face-to-face interaction to combat social isolation and loneliness. Additionally, many older adult users are on social media to interact with large audiences and express themselves. Gerald Stratford, 72, uses Twitter and Instagram to show off his talent for growing large produce. Singer Dione Warwick, 80, has recently begun using Twitter to interact with her thousands of followers and stay in touch with popular culture. Tik Tok user Fuego, 56, is a non-binary dancer who expresses themself by dancing and showing followers their favorite yoga and meditation techniques. Lonni, 56, loves tattoos, and made a Tik Tok account to show her younger counterparts that they won’t regret their tattoos when they are older—in fact, they will go great with gray hair. Using hashtags such as #Over50, #Over60, #Over70, and #Over80 will glean thousands of videos on Tik Tok with older adults showcasing their talents, thoughts, dances, and jokes often accompanied by younger friends or relatives.
Despite older users being present on social media platforms, their demographic is not proportionally represented among social media users. Social media users are still more likely to be younger than the general population, and it is likely that ageism acts as a barrier to social media use for older adults. It is an ageist assumption that social media is a space for younger people, and this shows up in ageist dialogue (see #BoomerRemover) and assumptions that older adults will be uninterested in the use of social media despite thousands of examples to the contrary. Further, it is an ageist belief that older adults are incapable of using social media properly—Dionne Warwick was prodded by followers to prove that her account was authentic. These ageist beliefs act as a barrier to technology and social media use for older adults as a double-edged sword: Both older adults themselves and people with knowledge about social media and technology assume that older adults will be incapable of understanding social media.
Older adults occupying more space on platforms like Tik Tok, Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram is not a bad omen for these sites but reveals the fallacy in ageist assumptions and the benefits of intergenerational communication. Social media use among older adults allows them to convey the heterogeneity in the label “old” in a way that is beneficial for older adults and younger adults alike. Using social media, older adults can share experiences and perspectives that might be helpful to younger adults. During COVID-19, it is especially helpful for older adults to share their experiences with younger adults, because research suggests older adults are more resilient in the face of pandemic trauma than younger adults. The growing intergenerational nature of social media has been beneficial in allowing a place for people to build relationships based on common interests rather than age. The future of social media is an intergenerational one, with the aging population only set to increase. Instead of viewing a growing social media use among older adults as the “death” of these sites, it should be viewed as an avenue for possibility that arises when everyone is given a platform.