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Adrian Weckler: 'Why old people need Facebook'


Online interaction through Facebook is increasingly important to older users

Online interaction through Facebook is increasingly important to older users

Online interaction through Facebook is increasingly important to older users

Maybe we're wrong about the pernicious role of Facebook in our lives. Or, at least, maybe it is of more value to elderly people than we're acknowledging.

The other day, I saw a group of pensioners laughing as they sat around the cafe table next to mine. One of them was holding up a phone with a video playing on it. The tinny audio was of another person singing.

They laughed again, someone cooed and the table then discussed the singer's performance for a few minutes. I caught a glimpse of the phone screen. The video was clearly on Facebook.

That night, I spoke to my dad in Chicago. It had been a few weeks, but he enthusiastically chatted to me about things I was doing, which he had seen referenced on Facebook.

Many of us joke about leaving Facebook because our parents have now joined. But think about it from your elderly parent's perspective and the filter of what Facebook is and isn't starts to shift.

More than any other service or device, Facebook is increasingly an important social utility in the lives of people who don't have as much regular physical or voice contact with others as they'd like.

That is an especially common situation for the over 65s.

A quick reminder of Facebook's user figures in Ireland helps clarify the point.

Its advertising numbers show that more pensioners than children now use the social media service here.

Some 170,000 Irish people over the age of 65 use Facebook, compared to 150,000 people who are aged between 13 and 18. Around 1.2 million of Facebook's Irish users are over 40, compared to one million users aged between 13 and 30. (These figures were helpfully collated by Cork-based firm Mulley Communications.)

This reflects what's going on in other countries. In the US, recent research shows that just 36pc of teens use Facebook at least once a month, down from 52pc two years ago.

In general, older people don't use Snapchat at all. A modest number use Instagram. But middle-aged adults and retirees mostly have smartphones and some form of home wifi. That largely leaves Facebook as the place they can go to look at what family friends or former colleagues are now up to.

There is still a trope that social media is a substitute for 'real' communication and contact. But imagine you're in your seventies and living alone. You've been using the internet for 10 years and, while no tech expert, have gotten used to keeping up with things online.

You have grown-up kids working in Dublin, London and America. They call reasonably regularly but now have their own busy lives, with growing families themselves.

You have a few friends, some of whom you see regularly and some you don't. You might enjoy a bit of television, books, music and the radio.

But you get lonely from time to time, or maybe more often than that. You yearn for interaction with someone else.

You open an app (or website) where you can see what a friend or family member says, or look at a photo they've posted. You leave a comment. You get a reply. You post something yourself. You get a reaction from someone. Maybe multiple reactions.

Is it really hard to see why this could be a big deal? We slag off 'likes' and 'favourite' clicks as something that can only be shallow and narcissistic. To be sure, they often are.

But for some, it is not about that at all. It is literally just about being acknowledged. It is about having someone - anyone - respond to you.

I know some older people like this. They're not trolls or desperate. They're just a little lonely.

They'll nod along as you discuss the latest scandal of whatever tranche of passwords Facebook left exposed in plain text. They'll agree that someone has to keep an eye on monetisation issues between WhatsApp and Facebook.

But tell them that Facebook is basically a negative thing in their lives? That they shouldn't use it anymore for their own good?

This doesn't ring true for them at all.

No-one would suggest for one second that a Facebook session accurately replicates a physical visit or a phone call with someone. And a service like Facebook should never be idealised as some sort of substitute, where grown up kids can say 'I don't need to call mam, she has Facebook'.

But we need to acknowledge that it may not be as empty and vacuous an experience as its fiercest critics would try to imply.

Indeed, over-the-top takes on social media services have been a depressing feature of mainstream thinking in Ireland. Twitter, lest we forget, used to be regularly dismissed as something merely for 'looking at photos of other people's breakfast'. Snapchat was tagged as something mostly associated with nudity photos (because messages disappear). Instagram, according to the same kind of critical filter, is largely a platform for making young girls feel bad about how they look.

While there's an element of truth to all of these stereotypes, the majority of users are just ordinary people doing and saying ordinary things. Online platforms much more closely resemble offline platforms than our we're currently prepared to admit.

Over time, user figures bear this out. Ordinary people use social media for things that benefit them. News. Social contact. Family.

I don't think that many would dismiss these platforms as being completely superficial, any more than they would a phone call or a text message.

Online interaction can be real interaction.

Facebook has become the new phone for older people. We need to stop underestimating how important a role it increasingly plays in the lives of older people.

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