Yale study finds bias toward elderly on Facebook

Ageism exists and has been unmasked on Facebook.

A startling — and some say disturbing — percentage of young people berate old people on Facebook, a Yale study has found.

Researchers at the Yale School of Public Health analyzed 84 Facebook groups and found that all but one had negative stereotypes of older people. Many portrayed them as being debilitated and advocated banning them from driving and shopping. One even suggested they be put before a firing squad.

“The hypothesis was that we would find some negative portrayals, but I don’t think we anticipated the level we found,” said Becca R. Levy, associate professor of epidemiology and psychology at the Yale School of Public Health. “The number of negative portrayals was surprising to me — and disturbing.”  

Researchers wanted to see how people over age 60 were portrayed on social networking sites. Using a Facebook search engine, they looked for publicly accessible groups and ended up examining 84 groups totaling 25,489 members. The mean age range of the people who created the groups was 20 to 29.

They found that:

  •  74 percent berated older individuals
  •  41 percent mentioned physical debilitation
  •  27 percent treated the elderly as children, and
  •  37 percent advocated banning them from public activities such as driving and shopping.

Levy said she was surprised at the level of anger she found on some of the sites. In one case, a group said:

“Old people do not contribute to modern society at all. Their single and only meaning is to nag and to (expletive deleted) moan. Therefore, any OAP (Old Age Pensioner) that pass (sic) the age of 69 should immediately face a fire (sic) squad.”

Nearly half of the descriptions of older people focused on physical debilitation.

“Old people are a pain in the (expletive deleted) as far as I’m concerned and they are a burden on society. I hate everything about them from their hair nets in the rain to their white Velcro sneakers. They are cheap, they smell of (expletive deleted) …they are senile, they complain about everything, they couldn’t hear a dumptruck….”

The one public site surveyed that did not criticize older people was devoted to the fictional old wizard, Gandalf, from “The Lord of the Rings.” It actually praised the elderly, saying, “Old men with long grey beards are so wise.”

The study was done collectively by the Yale School of Public Health, the University of California, Hunter College and the Hopkins School in New Haven and appeared in the journal “The Gerontologist.”

While Facebook has the potential to break down barriers, it seems to be setting up new ones, Levy said. She noted that Facebook’s Community Standards warn against singling out individuals based on race, ethnicity, national origin, relation, sex, gender, sexual orientation, disability or disease, and does not mention age. Levy said she would like to see Facebook protect older people just as they would other groups.

Facebook spokesman Andrew Noyes said their policy is to intervene when they are made aware of hateful statements.

“Direct statements of hate against particular communities violate our Statement of Rights and Responsibilities and are removed when reported to us,” Noyes said in a prepared statement. “However, groups that express an opinion on a state, institution, or set of beliefs — even if that opinion is outrageous or offensive to some — do not by themselves violate our policies.”

The study represents a fraction of the hundreds of millions of groups on Facebook. The study only looked at English-speaking groups, though there are more than 75 languages using Facebook and 85 percent of Facebook users are outside of North America.

“We welcome meaningful research on how people connect and share on Facebook, but believe this study paints an incomplete picture of how more than a billion people use the platform,” Noyes said.

In fact, there are some Facebook sites devoted to supporting the elderly, such as the AARP. In addition, some recent studies show that Facebook can help elderly users stave off memory loss, depression and help them feel more socially connected.

Levy, who directs the Yale School of Public Health’s division of social and behavioral sciences, first became interested in studying perceptions of the elderly while doing a fellowship in Japan. There she noticed a marked cultural difference in the way old people were treated compared to the United States. After that she joined a Gray Panthers Media Watch group in Cambridge, Mass.

“A lot of my research looks at how negative stereotypes of the elderly affects health and functioning  — and how positive stereotypes have a positive effect,” Levy said.