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Omaha Magazine

Facebook is for Seniors: Finding Connection & Fun on Social Media

Oct 28, 2020 10:17AM ● By Katrina Markel
Jeremy Lipschulz, Ph.D. at University of Nebraska at Omaha

Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Social media platforms can be an effective way for seniors to stay in touch with family, reconnect with long-lost friends, and forge relationships with like-minded people. The social platform Facebook is by far the most popular tool for older Americans. Nearly half of adults over the age of 65 have Facebook accounts and almost 40% use YouTube, according to a Pew Research study from 2019. 

Steve Bode, 71, is a retired photographer who volunteers with Cyber Seniors, a national organization that provides tech training for older adults. The Omaha group was meeting at Do Space before COVID-19 safety measures were enacted. When it comes to social media, he noted that the seniors he coaches typically want to set up a new account, recover access to an existing account, or need assistance working with photos.

“Most of the people that we’ve dealt with, the problem was that their kids are on Facebook and they wanted to see pictures of the grandchildren, and the only way they’re going to see them is if they got on Facebook,” said Bode, who also mentioned that his wife uses social media to stay in touch with family, including conducting video chats with a grandchild in Florida.

Jeremy Lipschultz, Ph.D., of the UNO Social Media Lab and School of Communication, said that a benefit of online video is that it can approximate the experience of being in the same space. 

“The more rich the technology is, the better from that standpoint, and so if you have a chance to use video, that’s a great way to maintain those relationships,” said Lipschultz, a 2019-2020 Peter Kiewit Distinguished Professor in recognition of outstanding performance in research/creative activity and teaching and author of two books on social media. 

Bode, who lives in Ralston, said that he enjoys Facebook affinity groups for photography and hunting. These groups allow for connection and information sharing among people with similar passions. 

“If you join a Facebook group it may or may not really serve any meaningful purpose in your life,” Lipschultz said. “But if it’s a community where people share interests, where they share problems and concerns and they’re serving more of a support group function, that can be very positive and very healthy for you. But you have to really think seriously about why you’re doing it and again, to the extent that you can, eliminate the noise and accentuate what is valuable. What’s helpful to you?”  

Council Bluffs residents Rand and Nancy Brookhart have been on Facebook for roughly a decade and it serves several functions in their lives. 

“I started because, at the time, I was a sponsor for a church youth group and kids were getting onto it. I thought, ‘What is this?’ I was just trying to keep up with the kids,” said Nancy, who is 68 and retired from a career with Iowa Workforce Development. 

Rand joined a few years later. He was singing in a quartet and he kept asking Nancy to promote the group on its Facebook page. 

“I was saying ‘Could you put this on, would you put this on here?’ and finally she said, ‘No, you do it yourself.’ So, I had to have my own Facebook account then,” said Rand, 69, who is also retired from Iowa Workforce Development. 

The Brookharts find entertainment on Facebook by playing games such as crossword puzzles. Rand said that his high school and college classmates keep in touch through dedicated Facebook groups, which is something Lipschultz sees as a benefit of social media. 

“From the purpose of sharing memories, sharing relationships, I think it can be a very strong and compelling context,” Lipschultz said.

During quarantine, the Brookharts have been able to participate in church services streamed on Facebook from Urban Abbey in the Old Market. Nancy has ataxia, a degenerative disease of the nervous system, which limits her mobility. Getting out of the house even in the best of times presents challenges. She has several social media accounts, which she said gives her something to do, although she doesn’t use all of them. 

“I’ve got a Snapchat account, but for the life of me I can’t figure out why that’s helpful. That seems pretty useless to me,” Nancy said.

She also uses Twitter for news discovery and notes the importance of double-checking the veracity of stories. 

“I don’t take what [news outlets] say verbatim and if I’ve seen something that kind of piques my interest, I’ll look elsewhere and see if it’s there also,” said Nancy, who added she’ll check to see if the story is reported in a major newspaper or “tried and true” sources—such as major broadcast networks—before sharing a story. 

Social media provides a fertile environment for misinformation and disinformation. A 2019 article published in the peer-reviewed journal Science Advances concluded that, “On average, users over 65 shared nearly seven times as many articles from fake news domains as the youngest age group.”

One of the researchers, New York University professor Jonathan Nagler told news outlets that a possible explanation for older adults being more susceptible to false information online is that they came of age well before the internet existed, and many lack the digital savvy of younger users. 

Even though seniors were the most likely age group to share false stories on Facebook, they still shared those stories at a relatively low rate of 11% during the 2016 election. By comparison, about 3% of adults aged 18 to 29 shared bogus stories.  One caveat, those numbers don’t include the countless people who may see the story, never share it, but believe it all the same. 

“What changed, I think significantly about a decade ago, is that the social media platforms allowed individuals to begin doing their own storytelling,” said Lipschultz, who explained that the internet has become a “virtual town square.” 

He points out that the First Amendment gives publishers a great deal of latitude when it comes to content creation. Since the advent of the internet, the barrier to entry is low when it comes to publishing content. The gatekeepers that existed a generation or two ago, when most Americans received news from broadcast networks and newspapers, are no longer there to mediate the content we consume. 

“In the absence of black letter law, we have to individually turn to ethics and hope that people are responsible in their use of social media, but we also turn to individuals to learn and exercise media literacy,” Lipschultz said.  

He suggests that news consumers need to learn to “deconstruct” stories and ask critical questions including, “Is the source and message credible or not? Do I need to check it out further? Is there only one source telling this story or many? Can I search it at Snopes and find out whether someone else has already checked for the truth and accuracy of it?”

Scams and privacy are two other concerns that seniors may have when using social media. The Brookharts said they’ve learned not to accept friend requests on social media from people they don’t know.  It’s also advisable to be wary of cloned Facebook accounts, a simple scam in which someone with malicious intent copies the Facebook profile of a friend and impersonates that friend in an attempt to obtain personal information. 

Bode said that one woman came to Cyber Seniors needing help after she was conned out of $5,000. He said they don’t see scams like that often, but malware—any type of software designed to hijack your computer or information on it—is more common. He recommends that older adults stick with devices that are less vulnerable to attack.

“I’m a big fan of the Chromebook and Chromeboxes because they’re cheap and they don’t get malware and they’re really not that hard to learn.” said Bode, who also mentioned that Apple products are hacked less often.

Users will also want to review their privacy settings on social media accounts. 

“And even when you set your privacy settings, people can take screenshots. It’s not a perfect system. We tend to tell students that it’s not a good idea to post anything that you’re not comfortable with anybody seeing,” Lipschultz said. 

Nancy said that she asks permission to share photos and tries to respect boundaries.

“One thing that I think has been helpful is to remember what is my story and what is someone else’s story,” she said.

Lipschultz suggested talking to trusted family and friends about social media privacy. Also, it’s smart to have a conversation about managing social media accounts in the event of illness or death. He recommends that if an account is left open, a loved one should be available to moderate it. 

In the book Antisocial Media, Siva Vaidhyanathan, Ph.D., compares Facebook to snack food. He writes, “We might turn to Facebook in a moment of boredom and look up an hour later wondering where that hour went and why we spent it on an experience so unremarkable yet not unpleasant.” 

Social media is designed to be addictive and Lipschultz recommends that users examine their online habits by “determining ‘Why am I doing this? What’s the reason for doing it? What’s the benefit to me?’” 

By reflecting on our interests, goals, and values, Lipschultz said it’s possible to minimize the negatives of social media and maximize the benefits for a healthy and rewarding experience.