Social Networking for Older Adults, Risks That You Should Know

Facebook, Twitter and other social networking sites, once the domain of young people, are increasingly popular with older adults. They are using social networking sites to stay connected with family and friends, and to make new friends. University of Alabama Birmingham researchers showed that going online diminishes depression. And a recent University of Arizona study even demonstrated cognitive benefits from this form of brain exercise.

The news isn’t all good. Facebook has received much negative attention because of the phenomenon of online bullying—and indeed, Yale School of Public Health researchers recently cautioned that older adults are not immune. Negative comments about seniors are common, posted by “trolls” or just by thoughtless younger people. Chief researcher Becca Levy, Ph.D., suggests that while Facebook forbids hate speech directed at racial and other groups, perhaps ageist comments should be added to that list. Says Levy, “Facebook has the potential to create new connections between the generations. Instead, it may have created new obstacles.”

senior_computer-2While the thought of seniors encountering the occasional ageist comment is distressing, larger dangers may loom. You have probably heard of the Grandma Scam, where a senior receives a phone call purporting to be from a young relative who is in jail or in some other trouble, and asks that money be wired to help out. Once the money is sent, the impostor is never heard from again, and the grandparent discovers that their real grandchild is just fine. This old scam is still going strong, with many victims out thousands of dollars every year—and the crooks have now taken their act onto Facebook.

With all the publicity about keeping children safe online, it’s easy to forget that people of any age can fall prey to hackers, identity theft and fraud—and seniors who are just starting out may be less aware about the pitfalls of online social networking. So if your parent or other senior friend is new to online communication, it’s a good idea to have a conversation about security. When it comes to online safety, knowledge is power. Here are 10 key points to share with senior loved ones:

  1. Get to know the privacy settings of social networking sites where you participate. You can choose who can and can’t see your information.
  2. Don’t post information or photos that you wouldn’t want shared with the world. Even if you intend for only a select group to see a post, someone in your network might pass something along that you would rather keep private.
  3. On Facebook, Twitter and other social networking sites, don’t indiscriminately “friend” anyone who asks. Verify the identity of people who want to see your information, or request to join an online community where you discuss personal matters.
  4. If you are in doubt that an e-mail or post is really from a person you know, pick up the phone and verify it. Hackers can set up a fake account or even take over the account of someone you know. And it is very easy to create a false “persona” online. Be cautious about giving out personal information or meeting in person with an acquaintance from a chat room or online community.
  5. If you receive an email or post from a friend that seems to be selling something or just doesn’t sound right, don’t feel hesitant to ask them about it; your friend’s account may have been hacked without them realizing it.
  6. Never respond to a request for money from someone claiming to be a friend or a stranger in need. Scammers can pretend to be someone you know, or may create a false identity to appeal to your sympathy.
  7. In email, online community and social networking sites, be cautious clicking on links, even from friends. If you click on a link that asks you to download a “viewer” or other software, don’t!
  8. Use a hard-to-hack password for Facebook, Twitter, email and other accounts. Don’t select your birthday, your pet’s name, or anything else that could be easily guessed. Include a combination of numbers, letters and special characters.
  9. The creators of viruses and other malware (malicious software) are constantly refining their attacks, so be sure to install anti-virus software and keep it up-to-date.
  10. Learn about some of the most common scams you might encounter. See the website at the end of this article for some good resources.

Having the talk about safe social networking

Many older adults hesitate to go online because they feel apprehensive about hackers, scammers and identity theft. How can family talk to senior loved ones about the subject without scaring them away from these new socialization tools? Remember: the goal is to empower older adults, not to scare them offline. Here are some ideas for having a productive conversation:

Talk about “we” rather than “you.” Anyone can fall prey to online con artists. Open the discussion with, “Here are some things I’ve learned to keep myself safe that I’d like to share with you.”

senior_computer-3-300x296Remind your loved one that the same cautions he or she practices in everyday life will also be useful online. Do a bit of role playing: “What would you do if someone asked you for money? What if they told you that you’d won a contest and only needed to send a ‘fee’ to collect?”

Establish a no-judgment zone. Reassure your loved one that if something seems suspicious or just doesn’t feel right, it’s fine to give you a call for advice, without embarrassment.

Think intergenerational! Many families report that grandkids and grandparents bond over tech support, and this can include computer security. Grandparents benefit from the knowledge and experience of the younger generation, and grandkids can feel good about helping their senior loved ones.

This article was provided by Mark Stappenbeck, Owner and Manager of Assisting Hands Home Care of Bergen County. For more information on Assisting Hands, visit the website at




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