And it’s not just photographic faux pas the kids are worrying about. Despite the attention that is placed on how immersion in the online world is negatively impacting naive and vulnerable young people, there is increasing evidence to suggest that older people are just as susceptible to believing and assimilating what they see and read on the internet, and perhaps even more so.
Another of the teens I spoke to, 17-year-old Oshane, explains, “The internet – and Facebook especially – has totally “red-pilled” my mum and grandma. They’re into these crazy groups on Facebook and my grandma gets really aggressive with people on Facebook. She’s this church-going lady usually, but she called one of her friends a “f—ing stupid sheep” online when he said something my grandma disagreed with. I told her I was going to confiscate her phone.”
It seems these concerns are well-founded. Research published in the journal Science has shown that it’s older people who are more likely to be duped by fake news; studies in the US show that the over 65s are seven times more likely to share disinformation than people in the 18-29 category.
And this makes sense. In my experience talking to teenagers, young people who have grown up with the internet intuitively understand there is as much opinion as fact online, that hyperbole gets more clicks and pictures and videos can be easily edited and manipulated. On the other hand, older people who grew up in an age of traditional media that had to be fact-checked and responsibly sourced are more likely to assume that the internet adheres to similar rigorous standards – which of course it doesn’t.
Like the younger generation, older people rely on their online communities for social support and friendship – increasingly so over the past year. These communities are often founded on a common interest or belief, and can turn a passing interest into an unhealthy obsession.
Harry, 19, is living through this with his dad. “I’ve had to stop even talking to my dad about Covid as it turns into an argument. He lost job back in April and started spending more and more time online. especially on Facebook. He joined a Facebook group and is now convinced the entire thing is a hoax. He attacks people online, especially doctors and scientists he considers pro-Covid. I’ve tried to tell him not to believe everything he sees on Facebook, but he’s completely hooked.”
We spent so much time worrying about protecting our kids online, it seems we forgot to worry about how vulnerable older people are. Our online selves and lives are increasingly important to us and exist as both a curation of the things we believe and like but are also a projection of how we want the world to see us.
It’s easy to become enamoured with your online self, particularly if this enhanced by followers or communities who also really like the online you.
Young people’s self-image and beliefs are transient and will go through many iterations, but older people who prior to social media perhaps felt more fixed in what they believed, read and looked like now have entire new worlds opening up to them – and are perhaps less well equipped to deal with these changes.
As Ali, 17, explains. “Offline, people my age look and act like complete scruffs and I’d like to believe what I show the world on Instagram is my real life.” He thinks his mother, especially on Instagram, is more likely to present a hyper-real image of herself to the world. “Liz Hurley is the poster-girl for my mum’s age group and I have a suspicion that she lives the Insta-life 24/7. I really wish Mum would stop following people like her, though. She’s a bad influence.”
Chloe Combi’s podcast, You Don’t Know Me, is available to stream on all podcast platforms now