Young social media users could learn from previous generations

We should embrace older generations’ social media use.

Trent M. Kays

The concept of social media is hardly original. Often, when we discuss social media, we do so in a way that refers to contemporary variations of media, chiefly Facebook or Twitter. However, such discussions would be stilted if we didn’t consider social media to be more than simply Facebook or Twitter. As long as there has been media, there’s been social media.

It’s a natural function of humanity: to share discoveries and creations with others. We need others’ validation on the work of living. That’s why we see both mundane and profound messages on social media. Do I really care what you had for breakfast? Probably not. But that doesn’t mean you should stop sharing that part of your life. What is mundane to one person is profound to another.

It’s the question of mundaneness that seems to plague older generations as they approach contemporary social media. For the second year, the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at the University of Minnesota has asked me to teach a class. The course, “Social Media: Practice and Critique,” is for returning adult and retired students. Last year, the students’ ages ranged from the mid-50s to 80.

Despite their unfamiliarity with contemporary social media, most of my OLLI students are highly intelligent, successful professionals (or were) and are interested in how to use certain social media. However, they also question why they should even bother to learn about social media. It’s the last bit that is particularly relevant, because it brings a type of critical eye to social media engagement that younger generations don’t always bring. These students likely have more social media experience than current undergraduates.

Returning adult and retired students have been communicating over the phone, through email, in letters and collaborating for decades. Generally, they know how to socialize over various media. While they may struggle with contemporary iterations of social media, they understand the base structures. In many ways, they are better equipped to understand the changes in media because they’ve seen its evolution; they’ve lived it.

Social media has become more complicated and more massive, and it’s these aspects that cause such cognitive dissonance among some generations.

According to the Pew Research Center, about 73 percent of adults online use a social networking site. Moreover, 45 percent of adults online age 65 or older use Facebook. To many of my students, these figures are shocking. My response to their shock is normally adulation. Eventually, every adult online will use a contemporary social networking site; it’s inevitable.

My students may be the best people to help shepherd younger generations into social media use. As I mentioned before, the students approach their studies with a certain amount of diligence that many younger students don’t discover until they’ve experienced more of life. This is a tremendous asset, and it would be ridiculous to not recognize it. This is especially true at a university where there is no dedicated general social media course for undergraduate students.

The assumption is that 18-year-old students don’t need their own course. They’ve grown up with the prevalent social media of today. It’s true that I’ve found my undergraduate students to be savvy — almost zealous — social media users. However, they often approach their use with such tenacity that they overlook issues of privacy, security and design. They don’t approach their use with the acute nature of one who has lived through various instances of shaming, love, loss, bullying, job hunting and other lifelong issues.

This, of course, isn’t always the case; however, many students should have a guide when learning and relearning how to interact with diverse and complicated social media. Despite the idea that technology should always be user-friendly and accessible, that’s simply not always true. Sometimes, trans-generational students need a helping hand or even just an ear to listen to their gripes.

Users join social media sites for various reasons. The most notable motivation among many of my OLLI students is that they want to see their family. Grandparents want to see pictures of grandchildren. I often get questions like “How can I set up a photo feed?” or “How can I set my Facebook so just family members see me?” from my students. The key point here is that no matter the generation, students are students. They yearn to understand, to find acceptance and to connect with other humans.

Media theorist Marshall McLuhan once wrote: “Today we’re beginning to realize that the new media aren’t just mechanical gimmicks for creating worlds of illusion, but new languages with new and unique powers of expression.” It’s not enough anymore that students use social media: They must use social media critically.

While it’s possible to learn such criticalness from instructors, students can also learn it from older generations who have experienced change before. Social media will not only serve as a source for connection, but as a source for generational harmony.

One generation has zeal, and other generations have attentiveness. Imagine what our world would be if we got them together.