By Sondra Shapiro
I am a Facebook user. Mostly I post for this publication’s page. Occasionally I share a photo or two of my cats or peruse the pages of high school classmates and long lost friends. Facebook appeals to my nosey nature.
Until recently, I assumed Facebook was the great generational equalizer. While ageism has been found in the workplace, media and other institutions, my experiences led me to believe the social networking site was a place where young and old come together in age neutral territory.
As I skim posts, it is clear that young and old are often “friends” — meaning they are members of the same Facebook group. I often notice exchanges between grandparents and grandkids. Groups that represent older Americans such as AARP have Facebook pages. In fact, a 2012 Pew Internet research study found that as of December 2012, 52 percent of Internet users between the ages of 50 and 64 were using social networking sites such as Facebook and 32 percent of Internet users age 65 and older were doing so. These facts made me feel Facebook went against the societal norm.
Then my naïve assumptions were quashed after reading the results of a Yale University study that revealed ageism is commonplace on Facebook — a hard fact for this poster to swallow. Facebook is being used to perpetuate rather than halt aging bias. Researchers analyzed 84 groups that included about 25,000 members. The sites were created by people between the ages of 20 and 29. Using 75 search words such as senile, decrepit, old, aged, retired and experienced, the researchers found only one group that didn’t include a negative stereotype — that belonged to individuals dedicated to the Lord Of the Rings character Gandalf.
“Facebook has the potential to break down barriers between generations; in practice, it may have erected new ones,” observed study leader Becca Levy, Ph.D., associate professor and director of the Social and Behavioral Sciences Division at the Yale School of Public Health,
The study was recently featured in the online version of The Gerontologist. Researchers from the University of Cali-fornia in Berkeley, Hopkins School in New Haven and Hunter College in New York co-authored the study with the Yale investigators — the first of age stereotypes that appear on social-networking sites.
Often posters described older people — anyone over age 60 — as being “mental” and/or “physically incompetent.” In some cases, executing the aged was proposed such as this one post that suggested anyone “over the age of 69 should immediately face a firing squad.”
Another poster wrote, “I hate everything about them, from their hair nets in the rain to their white Velcro sneakers. They are cheap, they smell like (expletive deleted) … they are senile, they complain about everything, they couldn’t hear a dumptruck …”
According to the study’s summery, 74 percent of the groups excoriated older individuals, 27 percent infantilized them and 37 percent advocated banning them from public activities, such as shopping and driving.
Levy stated that Facbook officially forbids hate speech in its Community Standards list that includes mentions of race, ethnicity, national origin, religion, sex, gender, sexual orientation and disability and disease. But, it does not include hateful words against older people.
In response to the Yale study, Facebook delivered the following statement: “Direct statements of hate against particular communities violate our Statement of Rights and Responsibilities and are removed when reported to us. However, groups that express an opinion on a state, institution or set of beliefs even if that opinion is outrageous or offensive to some do not by themselves violate our policies.”
There are millions of Facebook groups so the groups analyzed represent only a fraction of Facebook’s global user base. But unless the researchers had the bad luck to study the few groups that show age bias, it’s not a stretch to conclude that ageism is the norm.
With so many older people posting these days, what’s to keep a senior from stumbling upon one of these hateful sites? Perhaps the posters don’t care that their words can be hurtful. I am not suggesting we limit free speech, but social networking has become a common way for individuals to socialize. Its users should show better manners. It is up to Facebook to act responsibly by adding older people to its Community Standards list.
Sondra Shapiro is the executive editor of the Fifty Plus Advocate. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org. And follow her online at www.facebook.com/fiftyplusadvocate, www.twitter.com/shapiro50plus or www.fiftyplusadvocate.com