Two men laughing with smart phone
(Credit: Tim Robberts / Getty Images)

In a first-of-its-kind study exploring older adults’ use of TikTok to engage in “discourses on aging,” researchers highlight the platform’s potential to transform ageist stereotypes.

Researchers from Yale University and the National University of Singapore published “Not Too Old for TikTok: How Older Adults are Reframing Aging” in the journal Gerontologist. They compiled the most viewed TikTok videos of users aged 60 or more years who have at least 100,000 followers, generating a total of 1,382 videos with more than 3.5 billion views. 

Three themes emerged:

  • 71% of the videos featured older adults defying age-related stereotypes.
  • 18% featured older adults making light of age-related vulnerabilities.
  • 11% involved older adults calling out ageism.

Although older adults frequently are thought of as technophobic, researchers pointed to an analysis from Pew Research Center that found 73% of adults aged 65 or more years used the internet in 2019, and smartphone adoption today is 81% among adults aged 60 to 69 and 62% among those aged 70 or more years. Smartphone ownership went from 30% in 2018 to 40% in 2019 among those aged  74 to 91, according to a 2019 Pew study.

The University of Alabama in Huntsville also recently conducted a study of social media usage by older adults. Researchers there found that the pandemic led some older adults to up their game by becoming “granfluencers” on social media platforms.

TikTok, available in more than 150 countries, has a reputation of being the “virtual playground of teenagers.” But the platform noted that many older users have become content creators, “successfully racking up millions of followers, dispelling the long-held belief that older adults are passive consumers of social media.”

With the COVID-19 pandemic having “supercharged” the use of TikTok — and social media in general — among older adults, the researchers said it is critical to understand how older adults present themselves on social media. Although scholars and policymakers have sought to combat ageism through public education, the authors said that few have considered “putting older adults front and center in the fight against ageism.”

“In terms of practical implications, this study looks at how social media can be harnessed as a venue through which ageism can be combated,” they wrote. “By elucidating how they consciously engage in discourses on old age through their participation in social media, we explore the potential for empowering older adults to take on a more active role in ongoing efforts to reframe aging.”

Among their findings, the researchers reported that older adults remain severely underrepresented in the process of designing social media platforms and digital technologies. They also encouraged organizations that champion the rights of older adults to consider experimenting with short-form content on TikTok.

Future studies, the researchers suggested, could examine the personality traits and motivations of the older adults who are more likely to use social media, to engage in discourses on old age; the psychosocial benefits and costs to older adults who are public figures on TikTok; the demographics of the followers of older adults on the platform, and the audience reception to their content; and how various age groups use TikTok to interact.

“Our study reveals the potential for older adults to be put at the vanguard of a movement aimed at challenging socially constructed notions of old age through the use of social media,” they concluded. 

The study was funded by the Social Science Research Council SSHR Fellowship.