Research on Age Stereotypes

Last week I was privileged to meet the Yale University scientist who, along with the late Dr. Gene Cohen, sparked my own small effort to change children’s attitudes to aging. Becca Levy, Ph.D., an associate professor of epidemiology and psychology, spoke here in Ann Arbor recently at her alma mater, the University of Michigan. She also holds M.A. and Ph.D. degrees from Harvard University.

A tiny red door next to a large red front doorDr. Levy advocates that we find ways to change children’s attitudes to aging and older people. The scope and implications of her research into the impact of age stereotypes is mind boggling—she studies how people’s perceptions of aging actually affect their own health and function in old age. Her research delves into memory function, hearing, cognition, recovery from disability and cardio-vascular health. I will share additional information in future blog posts, but read about Dr. Levy’s theory of just how we each take in age stereotypes in my earlier blog post “The Power of Our Beliefs.” There is also information on Yale University’s website regarding her extensive published work.

Ageism on Facebook

Dr. Levy’s most recently published study looked at ageism on Facebook and it was the first looking at age stereotypes on social media. Levy, along with researchers from other universities analyzed 84 Facebook groups talking about older people. In an article in the New Haven Register Dr. Levy said, “The majority of the groups’ creators were between the ages of 20 and 29…74 percent of the groups excoriated older people, 37 percent suggested they should be banned from public activities and 27 percent infantilized them.”

The New Haven Register article also shares Facebook’s reaction to questions about hate speech toward older people. “Levy pointed out that Facebook’s Community Standards list of forbidden hate speech mentions race, ethnicity, national origin, religion, sex, gender, sexual orientation, disability and disease, but not age.” By the way, the author of this article used the word “geezers” in his very first paragraph….

The way I see it, perhaps selfishly, we need to turn things around quickly—the kids who will be active on Facebook in 20 years or so, are just being born. Let’s open every door possible, for children and adults, to make real changes in how we approach getting older and how we talk about older adults. Reading books to children with positive messages about normal aging is just one small door, but perhaps those images and conversations with enlightened adults can open the door a bit and shine a little light on the subject. Maybe they can tweak attitudes before Facebook morphs into some new form and social media spreads ageism rather than fights it.

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