We have long counted on our elders to act with a dignity befitting their advanced years and to express their sagacity through philosophically weighty language. Until, that is, the advent of social media.
“I wonder how I’d look with a beard … #ItsMy2Cents,” Larry King, 83, posted on Twitter in January.
“Who Looks At a TUBA,& Thinks … ‘DAMN … IM GONNA SHRED [fire emoji] ON THAT MO FO,’” tweeted Cher, 70, illustrating the message with a crudely Photoshopped graphic of Barack Obama and Joseph R. Biden Jr. both playing the nonflammable instrument in question.
And Donald J. Trump, also 70, took to Twitter to — never mind.
While brand-boosting celebrities and reality-show-hosts-turned-presidents may be too easy a mark, anyone who is friends on Facebook with a person of a certain age has witnessed similar behavior. Seniors used to maintain a wary distance from new technology, perhaps calling in someone younger to help them record an outgoing message on an answering machine or set up an AOL address.
But in this era of smartphones and broadband, the shackles are off. The aging hipsters of Gen X have long impersonated millennials online. Now Boomers, the last adults standing, may also be succumbing to the lures of technology-assisted infantilization. According to a Pew Research Center report, almost three-fifths of people 65 and over reported going online in 2015, by far the fastest-growing demographic since 2000, with 62 percent of that group currently using Facebook (the numbers are much smaller for Twitter and Instagram). Diving into the internet’s refreshing fountain of youth, a surprising number of grandparents are acting like their grandchildren in ways rarely seen outside of latter-day Jack Nicholson comedies.
Reverse role-modeling may be the reason for their “Cocoon 2.0”-like regression. When those younger than you are engaging in callow activities on the internet — selfies, boasting, acronym-filled rants, links to ostensibly humorous videos — and getting validated for it, peer pressure can alter the conduct of any user, even one eligible for Social Security.
“The one way you can tell it’s an older person using social media is when they pass on some mass-consumption piece titled ‘Check this out LOL’ that calls attention to itself while telling you it’s supposed to be funny,” said Jim O’Grady, 56, a reporter for the public radio station WNYC in New York. “That’s a guarantee it’s not going to be funny.”
Not helping their cause is that older people are late adopters, Mr. O’Grady said, and thus still unfamiliar with online mores.
“We all had to learn together how to absorb the common etiquette that we go by on social media,” he said. “They’re prone to those tonal mistakes more than younger people for whom it’s their native language.”
Beyond aping youngsters, there is something inherently juvenile about social media. To begin with, it elevates superficiality, speed and the image — all youthful preoccupations — over depth, deliberation and text, which we associate with mature adults.
“We’re in a transitional period where older people are trying to figure out how to use social media without losing credibility, in a venue that really wasn’t designed for them,” said Krystine Batcho, 65, a professor of psychology at Le Moyne College in Syracuse with a part-time practice. “To some extent, nostalgia can be psychologically healthy. But revisiting your childhood has to be done in moderation. You never want to lose your dignity; you want to retain the image we have of a wise elder.”
Part of the challenge with presenting this august appearance is that social media is as much about the self as it is about connecting with others. Frequently, of course, it functions as a convenient forum for disseminating news and photos to far-flung relatives and friends. Instances of blatant narcissism, however, are at odds with what we expect of older adults, who have supposedly shed the petty, puerile vanities of the developing ego.
Old age has the potential “to liberate our mind to the vision of the immensity of the world, of which we form an infinitesimal part,” as Carl Jung wrote in a 1960 letter to a fellow octogenarian, the Earl of Sandwich. No one bats an eye when college students brag about how much fun they’re having on vacation, but it’s jarring to see the same from recent retirees who, one presumes, should be sufficiently content with their private experiences not to publicize them.
And yet the senior set is still susceptible to the insecurities sparked by evidence of peers’ seemingly happier lives.
“Even at my age, it’s easy to feel competitive, jealous, left out on social media,” said Tracy Pennoyer, 63, a clinical psychologist focusing on diagnostic evaluations of children and adolescents in Westport, Conn. “It stirs up those feelings and juvenile thoughts of ‘I’m not cool’ that I might have had when I was younger. You think you’ve outgrown those decades ago, but no, they’re right there, waiting to pop out.”
The desire for online approval, through “likes” and heart symbols, can reduce even a sturdy sexagenarian to a fragile middle schooler. “The concrete venue does bring out past emotions you might have considered to be a time that’s gone in your life,” Dr. Batcho said.
Ms. Pennoyer, an amateur photographer, frequently posts her pictures to Facebook and Instagram and understandably finds herself paying attention to how much engagement they inspire. She recalled seeing Facebook photos of an acquaintance’s birthday party to which she was not invited. “I shouldn’t have been invited, and if someone had just mentioned it to me, I wouldn’t have cared,” she said. “But when you actually see a picture of a table with 20 people, it’s in your face.”
As for activities incongruous with seniority, Dr. Batcho theorized that some adults behave childishly, online and off, because of shifting household demographics and unsatisfied nostalgia.
“Back when people had larger families, they revisited childhood several times through their kids,” she said. “Now, when family size has shrunk, they have unfulfilled needs.”
Yet an even stronger impulse may be our culture’s fixation on denying death, strengthened by the medical progress of our age.
“The hope that some scientist is going to come up with an anti-aging potion and keep us immortal or that we’ll come back to life cryogenically — that hope was never present in human history,” Dr. Batcho said. “In older literature, there was more of an acceptance of the finality of death. Now we have this sense that even if you can’t live forever in your own physical state, you can pass on your legacy. One reason Facebook and social media have become so accepted is because of the promise, for better or worse, that it’ll be there forever. That’s our way of being immortalized.”
Perhaps some relics of our digital lives are best left unpreserved, especially since certain technological functions are tricky for those with declining faculties.
“I’m not very good at emojis,” Ms. Pennoyer said. When her daughter recently texted her something about her and her fiancé, she tried to send back an emoji of a couple holding hands, though the graphic was too small for her to see clearly.
“She asked, ‘Why did you send an emoji of two boys?’” Ms. Pennoyer said.
Nevertheless, she doesn’t feel any pressure to keep up with the young Joneses.
“I’m constantly told by my son that our generation has ruined Facebook and that they’ve moved onto other things,” she said. But “I don’t want to be part of whatever they do.”