During the lockdown, my 65-year-old mother did something that really shocked me. She started going to TikTok so she could watch and follow her favorite”Dancing Dadic” – which means grandmother in Hindi.
I was genuinely surprised to find that my mother – who is completely technophobic – had bought an iPad, had a high-speed internet connection, and figured out how to create a TikTok account, all so she could watch Dancing Dadi uninterrupted.
While I understand there are few sights more entertaining than an Indian granny amusing others with her wicked dance moves, there had to be something more than mere entertainment that converted my mom to technology and the youthful attractions of social media.
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As I started to explore the reason behind this transformation, I realized that both my mother and Dancing Dadi herself are trying to break the negative stereotypes and myths about old age.
While my mom took down the trope of the older person who… can’t get a grip on technology or understand social media, Dancing Dadi broke the stereotype that older women don’t have the energy to dance or express joy through movement — and used social media to demonstrate it.
recent Research from the University of Singapore has shown that this is not as unusual as you might think. Many older people are turning to TikTok — best known as a playground for Gen Z — to reframe the experience of aging and kick back against stereotypes about age.
In my own work as a behavioral scientist I investigate how people are prejudiced in the first place. We are all born unbiased, but then learn our prejudices from all sorts of sources, such as culture, language, society, peers, values, and so on. My research is: worried about developing advanced AI technologies to reduce human bias, prejudice and stereotypes.
Both my mom and Dancing Dadi forced me to think about these age stereotypes – why they still exist and why some people try so hard to overcome them using one of the world’s most popular social media platforms.
How stereotypes work
Stereotypes are beliefs (or associations) about particular social groups or categories. For example, men are often associated with power and career, while women are often associated with family and lack of power. In other words, stereotypes are expectations about the ability, preferences and personality type of a particular group, which are often too general and thus inaccurate.
Along the same lines, older people (people over the age of 60) are stereotyped as weak, sickly, inept, dull and useless when it comes to technology and social media.
Research has shown that the human mind has cognitive limitations such as: limited rationality, which means we look for good enough decisions rather than the best possible. When making decisions, we rely on simple cues that are often shaped by our assumptions or stereotypical associations. This is especially true when people don’t have the time or resources to discover new information.
The question is, are these associations correct and should they be relied upon in decision making? Many of us may deny that we think this way, but how often do we succumb to our cognitive limitations when making decisions under pressure and form biased opinions? In this way, stereotypes lead to biased perceptions which can then lead to discriminatory behaviour.
The only way to free the mind from our own subconscious biases is to destroy these stereotypes. However, challenging stereotypes, changing society and reducing subconscious biases that lead to discrimination is not easy.
But those who want to dispel negative stereotypes of old age have already done so started a social media revolution on the popular Tiktok video platform. Smart, funny and generally aimed at young people, 41% of TikTok users are under 24 – but about 14.5% of the users are more than 50.
More and more, as the Singapore research has shown that more and more older people are using this platform as their social media of choice to give a glimpse of a youth-oriented world, what their lives are like, the views they hold and the fun they have.
The researchers collected TikTok’s most viewed videos from people over 60 with at least 100,000 followers, resulting in up to 1,382 posts with more than 3.5 billion views. An in-depth analysis then highlighted how older adults proactively participate in TikTok to defy negative stereotypes and challenge socially constructed notions of “old age”.
These revolutionary content creators are users over 60 and create viral content for their millions of followers. The big hitters are people like Grandma Droniakwho gives honest advice; Grandpa Joewho makes humorous, non-talking videos about how he sees things; J-Doga non-year-old who likes to set young people straight; Grandpa Chan, who is a master at keep-fit dance videos; and Babs aka Nonnawho is now a bestselling cookbook author for her popular TikTok recipes and lifestyle videos.
Showing off their wisdom, vivacity, energy and fierceness, these people prove that grandpas can be granfluencers and grandmothers can be glamorous – glorious and glamorous.
Through the use of humorous, engaging videos, older people take a stand against prejudice and discrimination and reject the idea that they are invisible. Of course, more efforts need to be made on several fronts to eliminate the stereotyping of older people in our culture. This includes what I do: designing programs that can make us aware of our own biases and devising strategies that can challenge them.
Meanwhile, these older TikTokers are part of an encouraging and heartwarming movement that is helping to change prevailing attitudes. In a world so preoccupied with inclusion, the elderly are often at the end of the line, as we saw during the Covid-19 pandemic. This delightful embrace of TikTok in later life reminds us all of the worth and humanity of a part of society so often ignored and sidelined.