Online respect: challenging online ageism and age discrimination is crucial

A post from Heléna Herklots CBE, Older People’s Commissioner for Wales, for Get Safe Online Week

During the pandemic, our use of the internet has increased significantly and many older people who are online are now spending more time on the internet and using it to do more than ever before.[1]  This was reflected in my recently published Winter Stories report, in which participants shared their experiences of using the internet in new ways – such as accessing news and information, staying in touch with family and friends, doing online shopping and accessing entertainment and leisure activities. But the pandemic also highlighted some of the risks older people may face when using the internet, such as being targeted by criminals and scammers.

Polling undertaken on my behalf found that 75% of older people in Wales were aware of attempts to trick them into parting with money or personal information (many of these attempts will have been online), with 64% reporting that these attempts have increased since the start of the pandemic.[2] Similarly research by Hourglass found that over a quarter of people aged between 45 and 70 know or care for an older person who has been the target of an online scam to access their finances during the past year.[3]

Concerns about safety and security can often be a barrier that prevents older people from going online. Therefore, it’s crucial that we continue to reach out to older people to raise awareness and share information and resources – such as the wide range produced by Get Safe Online.

Alongside concerns about online safety and security, it’s also important to consider the impact of online content itself, which could also act as a barrier to people getting online.

Earlier this year, I published the findings of research I commissioned to look at the portrayal of older people in the news, which included examining a significant number of online articles. The research found that two-thirds of the stories published relating to older people had a negative focus, and that older people were often portrayed as being in ill-health, as victims, or as being a burden on society.[4]

Furthermore, research undertaken by the Centre for Ageing Better, found that the use of ageist and stereotypical language to describe older people was common on social media, with phrases such as ‘wee granny’ and ‘sad old’ being used around 20 times more frequently compared to ‘standard’ English usage.[5] They also found that intergenerational conflict was a common theme on social media, with younger and older people frequently being pitted against each other.

These kinds of negative portrayals and language – whether in news articles or social media posts – often makes older people feel excluded, affecting self-esteem and expectations about what we might be capable of or achieve as we get older. This can lead to negative views about growing older and ageing, which research shows can affect people’s health and well-being, as well as performance on cognitive and physical tasks.

More widely, negative portrayals and language also reinforce assumptions and stereotypes about older people that lead to ageism and age discrimination across society, affecting people’s access to key services, including health services, employment prospects, and opportunities to participate in and contribute to our communities.

Given the potential impact this discourse can have upon older people, as well as wider society, it’s crucial that we challenge negative portrayals and stereotypes, and discriminatory language about older people wherever we can.

So if you see an online article or social media post that includes discriminatory language about older people, please report it in the same way you would report other kinds of discriminatory language – please help to make media and social media outlets understand that this kind of content is not acceptable.

Or if you know an older person who may have come across this kind of content online and may be unsure about how to raise a concern or complaint, think about how you could support them to their voice heard. If you need information about the action you could take, and where you can go for help and support, please take a look at my Taking Action Against Ageism leaflet, which provides information on how to challenge ageism and age discrimination.

By challenging online ageism and discrimination, we can help to ensure that the discourse we see relating to growing older better reflects and respects the diversity and experiences of older people, and that older people do not feel excluded from enjoying the many benefits being online can bring.






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