Older generations getting on social media find more opportunities to interact with their families. (Photo/Stocksy)

Social Impact

Grandparents’ move to Facebook spurs both embarrassing ‘fails’ and opportunities

Social networks are like nightclubs — where parents and grandparents sometimes crash the party — USC expert says

July 31, 2018 Ana Beatriz Cholo

As social media demographics change, Facebook has become ground zero for culture clashes among older and younger generations.

Each type of social media, from Twitter to Reddit, has its own exclusive character and user base, according to USC social media expert Karen North. In a way, she said, social networks are like nightclubs.

The cool kids want to hang out at the cool club, even in the digital world.

Karen North

“The cool kids want to hang out at the cool club, even in the digital world. And the only thing worse than the uncool kids showing up at this club is when your parents or grandparents walk through the door, which is what we see happening with platforms such as Facebook,” said North, clinical professor at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.

The cool clubs for younger users — at the moment — are Instagram, Snapchat and YouTube, North said. The stuffy club is Facebook.

Seniors and technology: Increasing use of social media

Older Americans are the fastest-growing group to use Facebook, according to a Gallup poll released in April. More than half of those between ages 50 and 64 now have a Facebook page; in 2011, only about a third did. And about a third of people age 65 and older now use Facebook as well.

As recently as three years ago, 71 percent of teens reported that they used Facebook, according to another study from the Pew Research Center, and that figure has now dropped to 51 percent.

While the shifting user base and other factors have skewed Facebook older, many younger users still keep their Facebook pages. Recent data show that Facebook is more popular among lower-income youth. And sources such as Gallup indicate that numbers of college-age Facebook users are holding steady.

Many college and high school students use it, in part, because dorms, teams and some classes often use Facebook Groups as a communication tool, North noted. They use it to send announcements that not only show up on the platform, but also conveniently send email messages to the group members.

This mix of age groups on Facebook showcases an open social experiment. Some seniors are struggling to learn the social norms of interacting publicly with younger family members, with sometimes endearing, amusing — and often embarrassing — results. The phenomenon has spawned tutorial websites and how-to books for seniors eager to connect with family members and friends through the tool. It also spurs popular online stories with headlines like “17 Adorable Grandparent Facebook Fails” and YouTube videos like “Embarrassing Grandparents on Facebook.” Grandparents are adding to the endless wealth of autocorrect blunders, as well, North added.

Opportunities in an online world for seniors and technology

Despite the awkward moments, the online world poses many opportunities for kids, parents, and grandparents to coexist, North said. Social media can bridge the generational divide and encourage strong relationships.

“Digital devices have provided an opportunity for children, parents and grandparents to cultivate relationships across generations,” North said. “Years ago, grandchildren and grandparents would have to write letters to each other. It would take days.” Then came the telephone, along with the awkwardness of having conversations without seeing the person on the other end of the line.

“Now there’s Facetime, where you can read a book to a grandchild or you can create a private YouTube channel that is for family members only,” North said. “It’s pretty amazing that, historically speaking and in a blink of an eye, we’ve gone from writing letters to sharing these moments in real time.”

Beware of your tone

At age 19, college sophomore Emery Kerekes is attending school nearly 3,000 miles from his Santa Monica home. He keeps in touch with his family using various forms of social media — they text and use Facebook Messenger — along with phone calls.

Kerekes got on Facebook at age 11, in part because it was the only way for him to keep up with his friends from summer camp. But first, he had to “friend” his mother so she could monitor his activities. From an early age, he said, he had to train himself not to do or post anything he’d regret on social media — and how to properly post to older relatives.

There’s a different tone you have to use when you’re chatting with older relatives. I will use good grammar, good punctuation, no abbreviations.

Emery Kerekes

“There’s a different tone you have to use when you’re chatting with older relatives,” Kerekes advised. “I will use good grammar, good punctuation, no abbreviations.”

He recently spent a few hours teaching his grandmother, already adept at Facebook, how to use Snapchat, but he is skeptical.

“Supposedly she knows how to use it now, which I don’t buy,” he said.

Kerekes gave the example of a friend changing their Facebook profile photo. That alerts friends to the new picture, and friends make comments about the image. Then Grandma pipes in, but unwittingly with a personal message: “Hi honey! We just got back from a trip to Bermuda. Can’t wait to see you!”

As he explained, “Saying to an older relative, ‘No, this is not how you really use it’ — that is really hard.”

Worried about Dad

Of all of Kerekes’ relatives, it’s his father that gives him the most concern. His dad’s comments online reflect the way he speaks, Kerekes said, but they take on another dimension when written in social media.

“His punctuation is always correct, he always makes sure his grammar is spotless, but the big thing that he does is no prepositions at the end of sentences. He will say, “This is the cutest picture upon which I have laid eyes on today.”

The worst, Kerekes said, was when he was accepted to Yale University — and his dad found out and made a comment on Facebook.

“Huzzah, I am filled with pride and excitement,” his father posted on his son’s page for all to see.

Kerekes joked with his younger brother about it.

“Like, what is this?” he said, laughing. “Medieval times? It’s, um, I don’t really know how to describe it.”