In August, a man named Wang Deshun debuted as a model at 80 years old. Strutting topless down the catwalk, with his elegant flowing hair and full beard, Wang was dubbed “China’s Hottest Grandpa” by the international media. He became an online sensation overnight.
Just as the internet thrust Wang into stardom, it is also empowering many elderly Chinese people by breaking down traditional social barriers and preventing loneliness in their old age. Currently, there are around 721 million internet users in China. However, only 5 percent of people over the age of 55 use the web, compared to 58 percent in the United States.
A recent government initiative uses weekly seminars to teach Beijing seniors how to use smartphones, demonstrating how the technology can enrich their lives. Lessons cover everything from online banking to the massively popular social media app WeChat.
Although these lessons are currently restricted to 30 communities in China's capital, they prove significant in a country currently undergoing profound social change that has left many elderly Chinese people struggling to adapt. In practical terms, these classes familiarize the older generation with new ways to pay their utility bills, register with medical services, and use the internet recreationally.
In addition to making seniors’ lives easier and more efficient, smartphones can address problems of loneliness and depression — growing challenges facing the elderly in China. Senior citizens’ social circles commonly consist of their children, neighbors, and perhaps a handful of friends of a similar age. If their children change towns, cities, or provinces for work, this can leave the older generation isolated.
However, smartphone apps like WeChat help the elderly break the restrictions on their social lives. The diversity of communicative functions on WeChat allows them to share and receive texts, images, and video messages from their loved ones, as well as stay in touch by live-streaming face-to-face conversations. All of this helps to narrow the perceived distance between elderly smartphone users and their friends and family in other parts of the country, allowing them to maintain familial connections across long distances.
Meanwhile, gaming apps help to keep people’s minds stimulated in their old age. In addition to the ever-expanding range of new games, there are a number of traditional games — such as mahjong and go — that are already familiar pastimes to the elderly. The fact that such games target a more mature audience helps older people feel confident about exploring technology and engages them in a new creative medium.
Seniors in China who were seldom able to express themselves creatively when growing up — primarily due to the ideologically driven Maoist education system — can find an outlet for their creativity in the internet. Occasionally, such experimentation yields surprising results. For example, Li Jingchun, a 58-year-old farmer from Changbai County in northeast China’s Jilin province, built his own airplane after hoarding scrap material for two years, using internet resources to guide him. Li is an example of the unconventional and exciting thinking that seniors can achieve regardless of background, and access to information on the internet can empower others like him to improve their quality of life through personal expression.
Yet in order to continue this trend, technology ownership rates, particularly with regard to smartphones, must increase among seniors. Unfortunately, according to research by a Shanghai-based social sustainability advisory firm, many elderly people are misinformed about smartphones or resistant to acquiring them.
First, seniors do not fully understand smartphone technology and occasionally fear that it will leave them vulnerable. Many are concerned about making themselves targets for scammers.
Second, the belief that their needs are sufficiently met through current technology and the convenience of sticking with a familiar routine make many seniors less open to trying something new, even if they are aware of potential benefits.
Finally, the cost of new technology is prohibitive. Elderly people are frequently supported by adult children who are be struggling to support themselves and their own families. This leads them to feel that the costs of buying and maintaining smartphones are unjustifiable.
Government initiatives like the one in Beijing indicate that the state is willing to sponsor projects that help often-marginalized elderly people expand their social circles. While increasing internet access for seniors may not rank at the top of the government’s policy priority list, the benefits of the projects are clear. Large numbers of tech-savvy older people may create small-but-lucrative new markets for online retailers, educate themselves about health and lifestyle issues, and, most importantly, help maintain the social bonds among family and friends that the country’s globalized, consumerist economy is threatening to break.
A previous version of this story contained an error. The man known as "China's Hottest Grandpa" is Wang Deshun, not Wang Deshan.
(Header image: A man takes photos of a stage performance in Pingliang, Gansu province, March 4, 2015. Yang Xin/VCG)