How China’s Elderly Built an Internet of Their Own
If those born after 1990 are digital natives, senior citizens are often considered by younger generations as “digital refugees” — hapless Luddites either unable or unwilling to keep up with advances in digital technology, or worse, easily taken in by every rumor and scam they see online.
In China, technological and behavioral differences have fueled a rise in intergenerational conflict. According to data from last year’s census, China is home to 260 million people aged 60 and over. Of these, just 110 million — or more than one in three — described themselves as “online.”
If you delve beneath the stereotypes, however, you’ll find that this group may surprise you. Not only are many elderly Chinese avid and adept users of digital technology, they have also found ways to make the online experience pleasurable and even meaningful. Between 2018 and 2020, my research team and I interviewed nearly 200 “silver surfers” nationwide, all of them aged 60 or older. We found significantly higher levels of happiness among older people who used the internet compared with those who don’t.
For many of our interviewees, the initial impetus to get online came from their children, whether out of a desire to keep in touch with them, or because their kids had gifted them with a secondhand smartphone. But once they accessed the internet, they found themselves appreciating the opportunities it presented for socializing and mutual support, even praising the significant positive effect it had on their mental wellbeing and quality of life.
Seniors generally lead a slow-paced life after retirement, with more leisure time and a greater desire for interaction with others. Going online allowed them to maintain and expand their social interactions in new and sometimes unique ways.
Take WeChat, for example — the most used app in China. Young people rely on it for everything from work to chatting with friends. Seniors, too, have made the software an indispensable part of their social lives, but in different ways.
In China, it is common for seniors to move to faraway cities to live with their children and help look after their grandkids. For them, WeChat is both a link to old friends now scattered across the country and an important way to expand their social networks in their new communities. Seniors will form group chats and organize meet-ups with other urbanites their age, agreeing to take their grandkids on walks together, notifying each other about supermarket deals, and swapping tips about childrearing. These connections can help uprooted individuals adapt to city life more quickly by easing their homesickness.
Unlike the “like-based” friendships, many young people have on social media, senior citizens often become deeply emmeshed in each other’s lives online in ways that mirror the close-knit ties of rural society. Whereas young people’s contact lists are full of strangers they barely know, seniors can generally tell you about almost all their WeChat friends’ hometowns, families, and job histories. This is because their online relationships develop out of the real world and are subsidiary to it: Seniors use digital technology to maintain relationships and organize offline activities, thereby increasing opportunities for real-life communication, rather than the other way around.
If anything, as deeply ingrained as the image of elderly “digital refugees” is in the public’s mind, we found that some seniors in China are even more enthusiastic about going online than younger people. For example, a 64-year-old net user surnamed Xu told us that he makes a point of noting any “fashionable” new app or technology he sees young people using and trying them out later. He scrolls short video apps, edits photos, and plays games every day— he was even the first person in his family to start using the now-popular low-end shopping app Pinduoduo. “In the digital age, surfing the internet is literacy,” Xu said. “If you don’t learn, you’re going to get left behind.”
For seniors like Xu, learning new things on the internet is a source of pleasure in their lives. This habit not only challenges the prejudices that many young people have about seniors, such as them being uninformed or having outdated ideas, but also gives seniors the confidence and opening to talk with their younger family members and acquaintances about current events. “During the (COVID-19) epidemic, I communicated with my children much more,” 63-year-old Fu told us. “They came to realize how much I know, which in turn made them more willing to share (what they knew) with me.”
Indeed, the use of smartphones has altered the ways in which elderly people obtain information. In the past, newspapers and TV were the main sources of news and information for China’s senior citizens. As these mediums have been supplanted by new technologies, seniors have increasingly changed from passive consumers of news and mass media into active seekers of new information.
For example, during last year’s COVID-19 outbreak, many news reports focused on the inconveniences that technological barriers had brought to older people. But the internet was also an important channel for many seniors to obtain the latest information about the virus’ spread. Many of those we interviewed said they got their information about official epidemic prevention and control policies from TV, but the details of outbreaks in different regions more often came from their WeChat feeds or through posts on public accounts they followed on the platform.
As they become more comfortable with digital technologies, seniors gain access to a host of benefits that help them expand their lives after retirement, including access to digital health platforms and prescriptions and ride-hailing services. More importantly, if they encounter a problem, they can ask for help from family or friends by simply sending voice messages or photos. During our interviews, many likened their smartphones to a personal bodyguard.
Of course, these conveniences don’t detract from the real problems of life online. For empty nesters who lack offline social circles, there’s the risk of falling into long-term internet dependency as a way to ease their loneliness. Online scams and fake news targeting the elderly are also common problems. However, our research suggests that access to the internet is a net positive for seniors, one that opens up new worlds, enabling them to find company, access emotional support, locate diverse information and resources, and lead happier lives.
It’s time to stop treating seniors as “digital refugees” and start recognizing that the digital world belongs to them as much as it does anyone else. Rather than exclude older internet users, we should value their interests and needs, work to solve their problems, and do everything we can to enrich their digital lives.
Translator: David Ball; editors: Cai Yiwen and Kilian O’Donnell; portrait artist: Wang Zhenhao.