Prejudice against Older Persons on Facebook

At the same time that Facebook is revolutionizing the way that people communicate, recent research shows that it also provides a platform for the enduring problem of negative age stereotypes.

Investigators led by Becca Levy, Ph.D., associate professor and director of the Social and Behavioral Sciences Division at the Yale School of Public Health, recently analyzed the site descriptions included on publicly accessible Facebook groups that focused on older persons. The sites were created by younger persons, mainly between the ages of 20 and 29, and had more than 25,000 combined members. 

All but one of these descriptions included negative age stereotypes, with the majority describing older persons as mentally or physically incompetent, or both.  

The elderly were vilified on three quarters of the Facebook sites examined. In some cases, executing the aged was proposed. One Facebook group description, for example, stated that anyone “over the age of 69 should immediately face a firing squad.” 

Over a third of the sites advocated banning older persons from public activities.  The activities mentioned most were shopping and driving. Additionally, on one-quarter of the sites, the elderly were portrayed as infantile.  In these cases, they were described with such phrases as “a smaller, younger child.”

This is the first study of age stereotypes that appear on social-networking sites. “Facebook has the potential to create new connections between the generations,” said Levy. “Instead, it may have created new obstacles.” 

Facebook officially forbids hate speech directed at several groups that are listed on its Community Standards, but the aged are not included. Among the other reasons given by the authors to explain the findings are the prevalence of negative age stereotypes held by younger people, combined with their participation on Facebook at considerably higher rates than older people.

The study has appeared in the online version of The Gerontologist. Researchers from the University of California in Berkeley, Hopkins School in New Haven and Hunter College in New York co-authored the study.

This article was submitted by Denise Meyer on March 13, 2013.