Study finds Facebook hostility toward elderly

Facebook
Photo by Mohan Yin.

Facebook may be changing forms of social interaction across the world, but age-based discrimination still pervades the site.

Researchers based at the Yale School of Public Health have found Facebook to be an “injurious” environment for older users and urged the company to prevent age-based discrimination in a study published in the current issue of The Gerontologist. The brief study, entitled “Facebook as a Site for Negative Age Stereotypes,” is authored by Becca Levy, a professor at the School of Public Health and researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, Hunter College and the Hopkins School.

Facebook’s Community Standards affirm the company’s desire for the site to be a place of positive, mutual interaction; however, researchers noted that the site — which forbids discriminating on the basis of various criteria including race, religion and sexual orientation — does not account for possible age-based prejudice.

“Because Facebook is a corporation built on social relationships, it has a responsibility to ensure these relationships are not injurious — to those directly involved or to those indirectly affected by them,” Levy wrote in the study.

To determine which Facebook groups to include in her study, Levy and her team searched the site for groups containing one or more of 75 synonyms for the terms old, aged and elderly. The study, which involved a “content analysis” of group descriptions for all 84 results of the query, found that age-based negative stereotypes were present at consistent and high rates.

Erdman Palmore, a professor emeritus at Duke University’s Center for the Study of Aging, said ageism, much like sexism and racism, is a prejudice against a group of people based on characteristics they cannot change.

Age-based prejudice is often overlooked because of how pervasive it is in our culture, he said.

“Our very language is infected with ageism,” he said. “Old age is associated with ‘decrepit’ and ‘senile’. Young is associated with all the good things like ‘young at heart.’”

Levy said she wants to give Facebook the benefit of the doubt and hopes this new information will help improve the environment faced by older people on Facebook.

“One thing that’s been kind of nice in writing this is that the Facebook spokesperson requested a copy of the article,” she added. “Somebody there is looking at the article. It would be great if some of these particularly offensive groups were taken down.”

The company did not return a request for comment, but Andrew Noyes, a Facebook spokesman, told the New Haven Register on March 30 that the study does not reflect the way most people use Facebook.

Although employment discrimination against the elderly is illegal, Palmore said they are not protected from online prejudice. The Equal Employment Opportunities Commission sees more cases of age-related discrimination than race and sex-based discrimination combined, he added.

Levy said she thinks laws against ageism could be stronger. In the meantime she hopes Facebook will actively work to prevent ageism.

“It’s their responsibility not to have some of these particularly offensive groups online,” she added.

According to 2012 data from the Pew Research Center, 86 percent of internet users between the ages of 18 to 29 use Facebook, while only 35 percent of users over 65 use the social network.

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