One-sided image of older people in social media

Healthy, active and social. This is often the image given of older people in the social media from a Swedish municipality. It is a positive image but relatively one-sided, and it may reinforce stereotypes. This is the conclusion of a doctoral thesis presented by Wenqian Xu.

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The messages spread in social media affect how we perceive the world. Wenqian Xu says that actors such as media companies and governmental or municipal organisations in particular have positions of power and thus have an impact when they publish.

In his doctoral thesis, he has studied how a Swedish municipality portrays older people on Facebook. Several of the operational units of the municipality – such as the administration, museums, homes for the elderly, and schools – have their own Facebook pages. He has analysed the images published, and compared the way in which older people are portrayed, relative to other age groups.

“Municipal operations are using social media to an increasing degree. This is why it’s important to study how people are presented. Previous research has focussed mainly on mass media, such as newspapers and TV”, says Wenqian Xu.

A polarised image

The study shows that older people are portrayed to a large extent as active, social and healthy.

“Older people are presented as a homogeneous group. Even people in the care system are presented as being in relatively good health, even though many people in, for example, nursing homes require large amounts of care.”

At the same time, an image is presented in which the physical and technical abilities of older people are lower than those of younger people. Older people are more often depicted socialising, for example, and drinking coffee, while younger people are shown in more active situations such as physical training.

This result is consistent with previous studies. Wenqian Xu describes it as a frequently used discourse of “successful” aging, which has arisen as a reaction against an otherwise negative image in the media of older people and the experience of getting older.

But one-sided presentations, both positive and negative, can lead to ageism – a systematic and stereotypical image of, prejudice about, and discrimination against older people. Ageism affects the image other people in society have of aging and older people, and of the experience of aging. And previous research has shown that it also affects the self-image of older people, their health and well-being.

“Everyone gets older, but we all do it differently. Just as we can’t say that all older people are frail, we can’t say that they are all healthy, active and social. Presenting such an image leads us to expect that all older people are healthy and can carry out certain activities. It puts people under pressure to live up to something that not everyone can achieve.”

In his thesis, Wenqian Xu has interviewed communications officers in the municipalities to investigate how the content of the Facebook pages has been produced. The image of older people is a result of such things as a desire to create a good impression of the municipality and its services, and to create engagement and interaction on Facebook. At the same time, the images must be of a certain quality, and they must be compatible with the municipality’s interpretation of the EU General Data Protection Regulation.

Ageism in different contexts

Ageism can be found in different contexts and it is expressed in different ways. Wenqian Xu has also studied the way in which older people are presented in social media in China. He has investigated a reality TV series about dementia, and has also looked at hashtags on Weibo, the Chinese equivalent to Twitter, during the Coronavirus pandemic. The results suggest that older people are presented as a homogeneous group also in China. In broad terms, they are shown as being able to manage independently the challenges associated with dementia and the Coronavirus, and as active contributors to society and the family.

Preventing ageism

Wenqian Xu believes that creating content together with a wide range of older people, and increasing knowledge about ageism among the people who produce content can contribute to preventing ageism. But he points out that more research is needed.

“We need to know more about how the recipient understands and takes in the messages given in social media, and how gender, sexuality and functional variation play a role in aging and ageism.”

Translated by George Farrants.

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