TikTok Is Changing What It Means to Be ‘Old’

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Why are young TikTokkers so afraid of growing older? Julia Twigg, an age studies researcher and sociology professor at the University of Kent, says people shouldn’t “naturalize” ageism by making it sound inevitable, even though it is a “deeply entrenched set of ideas.” While youth has historically been valorized in most cultures, Twigg says, we should also look at modern phenomena that reinforcement ageism.

“Social media has much the same issues with aging as print media, except the online world is capable of being much harsher and much more openly hostile,” Twigg says. The internet, she adds, “enables [harsher opinions] to emerge into the public sphere in a way that doesn’t happen when they’re filtered through magazines and through an editorial lens.”

Ashton Applewhite, author of This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageismadds that we can’t divorce ageism from modern capitalism. “No one makes money off satisfaction,” Applewhite says, “When natural biological transitions are pathologized or problematized, people make money off them.” While anti-aging creams have existed for centuriesTikTok has enabled the constant buying and selling of these products. Thanks to the TikTok Shop, users can purchase anti-aging serums, concealers, acids, creams, eye gels, and “light therapy masks” without even leaving the app. Influencers are incentivized to flog these products because they earn a cut of whatever sells.

“Someone who’s in their mid-twenties knows about anti-aging marketing and they’re not wrapped up in the idea that if they get one wrinkle they’re gonna die,” Laurier says. “But if you market that to a 12- year-old, they’re really going to internalize that and take it to the next level.”

One possible solution is exposure. “There are literally studies that show the more you know about aging, the less fear it holds,” Applewhite says, adding we also need to dismantle “the false idea that we have most in common with people our own age.” Theoretically, this is something TikTok could help with—hobbyists can meet under hashtags no matter where they’re from or how old they are.

Laurier says that people her age should also think about how they talk on the TikTok app. “I think people who are in their thirties and up need to stop joking about being ‘old,’” she says, “People make a lot of jokes about, ‘Oh, I can’t move my body anymore,’ ‘Oh, my knees are turning to dust.’ I know people mean well and it’s self-deprecation, but I do think these jokes can have an effect on how people actually view you.”

Laurier has another suggestion, and it’s simple enough. “I think,” she says, “people who are older should start showing their lives more online. They should show these kids that life doesn’t end in your twenties. Life is really just beginning after that.”

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