Adults age 65 and older are among the fastest growing demographic engaging in social media. The benefits of older adults on social media include increased connections with family and friends and reduced levels of depression and feelings of isolation. In efforts to understand generational considerations, Hueya asked participants to comment on the role of technology in connecting with their grandchildren. Findings revealed that older adults enjoy social media platforms, such as Facebook, Skype, Instagram, Facetime, and direct messaging to stay in touch with loved ones.
It is clear that seniors are actively participating with care, interest, and intention in a digital world. Interestingly, survey findings also highlight how older adults and teens share similar experiences when it comes to feeling safe, independent, and connected online. This generational compassion may be a meaningful link to supporting families’ overall digital wellness.
As danah boyd highlights in her analysis of the online social lives of today’s youth, as a society, we have generalized the behavior of youth without careful consideration of context, developmental needs, and the innovative ways in which children use social media to make sense of the world and their role in society. Likewise, when it comes to older adults and this generation’s use of technology, society often fails to recognize the interplay between creativity, flexibility, resilience, and the developmental drives evident in digital interactions and instead, casts a generation in an awkward light where digital gaffes and misunderstandings highlight a “they just don’t get it” mentality.
Just as boyd considers the spaces of youth and the inherent changes in today’s world, we can consider the changes in social spaces–or “collapsed contexts”–for those who identify as older adults and seniors. Whether it was in the living room, around the bridge table, or at social gatherings that did not include children, the social lives of grandparents of the past were often clearly separate from those of their adult children or grandchildren. With social media, visibility into everyone’s social network is much more public–more common that not, posts intended for same-age peers are visible to a different audience but without understanding of context or intent.
In the past, generations united during times of celebration, mourning, milestones, and reunions. During these times, conversations were often focused on catching up, sharing stories, and passing on cultural traditions–and these exchanges often took place in smaller conversations or activities. With social media, the expectation to “know” one another is often synonymous with following someone’s feed, liking their photos, or commenting on their posts. It’s not uncommon for my parents’ generation to say that they initially signed up for Facebook accounts in order to “keep up” with younger family members.
Sharing and Privacy
The particular concerns for privacy in a digital world are unique and sensitive across generations. For instance, in today’s world we carry our photo albums on our phones. Yet, with social media, the sharing of pictures and posts is so different–unlike the small photo book, refrigerator door or wallet-sized photo pages, sharing photographs online is not always isolated to one person at a time. In light of the potential risks associated with public posts, parents are understandably protective of their children’s images. As children get older and share permission or discomfort in posting their photographs, the terrain shifts again and the rules may change.
Everyone is Developing
Although we often to refer to the “developmental needs” of children, humans, throughout life, have different developmental needs. In his psychosocial theories of development, Erik Erikson (1902-1994) argued that humans pass through stages of development throughout the lifespan. Erikson suggested the seventh stage of Generativity vs. Stagnation (ages 40s to mid 60s) and the eighth stage of Ego Integrity vs. Despair (ages mid 60s and older). Highlight the search for integration of self with society and the sense that our life’s work matters to our family and community. At the heart of these stages is the question of connection and value.
With respect to digital interactions and relationships across generations, it is interesting to consider how developmental needs intersect in exchanges on social media. Whereas “liking” a picture, commenting on a post, or retweeting may signify to one user visibility or intrusion, to another it may be the social signal that ideas hold value and meaning.
As we move forward in a digital world in which we will continue to grapple with social norms, expectations, and networked faux pas, it’s necessary to consider how the digital era signals a shift in generational interactions. This shift is not one-sided: the opportunities and challenges are bereft for all who are engaged. At the heart of our interactions, despite awkward moments and actively challenged generalizations, is the desire to connect with one another and to feel that what we offer holds enough value and meaning to last beyond our years.