A lot of older Americans are turning to Facebook as a way to communicate with their friends and to find others with whom they share common interests. That's why it's all the more disturbing when a newly released study concludes that the world's most popular social networking site has also become a hotbed for ageist bigotry of the most extreme sort.
How extreme? For starters, try a Facebook group entitled "Old people to be shot at the age of 70." The group's description explains: "Old people do not contribute to society at all. Their single and only meaning is to nag and [expletive] moan ... To be quite honest, you haven't got much going for you, so my advice is take the bullet and enjoy your grave."
The study - conducted by researchers at Yale, the University of California-Berkeley and Hunter College and published in a recent issue of The Gerontologist - pointedly noted that Facebook's Community Standards regulations ban hate speech against anyone based upon race, ethnicity, national origin, religion, gender, sexual orientation, disability or medical condition, but attacking older people in the same way apparently is not a violation. "There is a need for Facebook not only to recognize that older individuals are at risk of being targeted, but also to provide a buffer against the promotion of negative age stereotypes," the researchers conclude.
Eighty-four Facebook groups identified by the study had themes of something to do with older people, with a total membership of more than 25,000 users. The groups were created by younger users, mostly between the ages of 20 and 29, and all but one promoted some sort of negative stereotype of older people. (The one exception: A whimsical group devoted to Gandalf of Lord of the Rings, with the title "Old men with long gray beards are so wise.") More than a third of the groups advocated banning older people from certain activities, such as driving or shopping.
"We welcome meaningful research on how people connect and share on Facebook," a spokesman for the company told AARP, "but believe this study paints an incomplete picture of how more than a billion people use the platform."
The notion that Facebook could be a gathering place for granny-bashers may come as a shock to older Facebook users, since we seem to be taking over what was once a site dominated by high school and college students. According to a 2012 demographic study by Pingdom, a Swedish resesarch firm, the average age of Facebook users is now 40.5 years, or about two years older than in a 2009 study. Facebook users age 45 and over now account for 46 percent of the social network, significantly more than the 32 percent who are under the age of 35. A 2012 Pew study found that 57 percent of Internet users between ages 50 and 54 now use Facebook, as well as 35 percent of those age 65 and older. Younger Internet users, in contrast, increasingly are turning away from Facebook and gravitating to Twitter, Tumblr and social mobile apps, according to this 2012 Los Angeles Times article.
It's also important to note that the study depicted a snapshot of Facebook in 2011 and 2012, and that the social network tends to evolve as dramatically as, say, Rihanna's hairstyles. A number of the user groups cited in the study, for example, no longer seem to exist, and a quick search of Facebook now reveals numerous pages for groups and organizations that take a more positive attitude toward aging. The AARP Facebook page, for example, has more than one million "likes."