Three themes emerged in new study published in The Gerontologist: Nearly 3 in 4 posts featured older adults “Defying Age Stereotypes” (71%; Theme 1), 18% featured them “Making Light of Age-Related Vulnerabilities” (Theme 2), and 11% involved older adults “Calling out Ageism” (Theme 3).
A new study explores how older adults consciously engage in discourses of aging through their participation on TikTok. The findings highlight the potential for older adults to be put at the vanguard of a movement aimed at challenging socially constructed notions of old age.
Researchers compiled the most viewed videos of users aged 60 and older with at least 100,000 followers, generating 1,382 videos with over 3.5 billion views. Videos that did not feature older adults engaging in discourses on aging were excluded, resulting in 348 videos for content analysis. Both inductive and deductive approaches guided the qualitative analysis.
Results: Three themes emerged: Nearly 3 in 4 videos featured older adults "Defying Age Stereotypes" (71%; Theme 1), 18% featured them "Making Light of Age-Related Vulnerabilities" (Theme 2), and 11% involved older adults "Calling out Ageism" (Theme 3).
Theme 1: Defying Age Stereotypes (71%)
Videos belonging to this theme featured older adults challenging mainstream discourses on old age. One TikToker began her video with a sprightly “I feel cute today! Look at my outfit” before capering about and flaunting her outfit while singing, “I feel good today.” In another clip, the same user filmed herself post haircut, self-assuredly exclaiming, “This is me after my glow up. I look so pretty and I feel so pretty.” At one point of the video, the user even brought the camera closer to her face, making no attempt to camouflage any signs of aging.
Responding to the comment “U (sic) look beautiful” left by a fellow user in a previous video, a TikToker remarked, “Tell me something I don’t know” before puckering her lips mischievously. This self-confidence was also apparent in a video with the text, “I may be too old or too out of your league,” where a user greeted the audience with a wink over an audio track playing the words, “You (sic) liking what you see.” A similar video depicted one user parading along the sidewalk coquettishly in a midriff-baring top, with a caption declaring unabashedly to viewers her age of 70 years.
The “glamma”—a portmanteau combining “glamorous” and “grandma”—was a recurring motif in videos created by two accounts in particular. Videos uploaded by the first account typically depicted an all-women quartet strutting down the streets donned in stylish and at times figure-hugging apparel. Content from the other account involved a self-proclaimed 60-year-old documenting herself decked out in various streetwear, with captions such as “I just hate when people define what a grandma should wear,” “When you are 60, you can be cooler than me,” and “Fashion is not up to age, it’s up to what you like (sic).”
Theme 2: Making Light of Age-Related Vulnerabilities (18%)
EDITOR NOTE: Warning Disturbing Content. Posts under this theme feature “jocular discussions” concerning old age. These videos appear to our ageism experts to be examples of self-deprecating internal ageism rather than positive examples of aging.
These discussions circled around topics related to cognitive impairment, physical debilitation, death, the COVID-19 virus, and sexual dysfunction. In a video embedded with a text sticker that read, “My Alzheimers (sic) kicking in while scrolling through tik tok (sic),” a user dramatized the disorientation experienced by those with Alzheimer’s, specifically through the use of a filter meant to induce a sense of vertigo, as well as her choice of an audio clip in which one song was jarringly layered over another.
Similarly, in another video prefaced with a caption that stated, “It’s a joke… we are both healthy,” a user recorded herself brushing her hair “for the sixth time,” chalking up her memory lapses to dementia. The next scene was of her husband completely mesmerized watching his wife doll up, accompanied by the text sticker “Him being amazed because he also has dementia and forgot I have done it 6 times already.” Another video depicted the same TikToker making a prank call to a friend with dementia for the third time in the year to tell her friend to pay her the five hundred dollars still “owed” to her.
One user poked fun at her own susceptibility to falls. With the text “Me facetiming life alert after I have fallen down the stairs and can’t get up,” she filmed herself sprawled lifelessly across the staircase with her spectacles shifted to the side of her face for dramatic effect. loss and tumors leaving my body after being told to walk it off.” Other instances of older persons joking.
Theme 3: Calling Out Ageism (11%)
Many TikTokers narrated their encounters with other users who were unwelcoming of older adults on a platform perceived as exclusive to younger people. For instance, in response to a snide remark, “Go back to Facebook (sic) old lady” made by a fellow user on the application, a TikToker sniggered with a voiceover “No.” In another clip, the same user registered her vexation with users who made ageist comments such as “Somebody come get their grandma” or “Boomers don’t belong on tiktok (sic).”
One individual responded to the comment, “I’ve never seen an 84-year-old on TikTok” with style, embellishing himself with a necklace and a pair of sunglasses—in stark contrast to the rest of his uploads where he was dressed more plainly—splicing this scene with a screenshot of a song titled “What’s Poppin,” a slang which means what is going on.
One user compiled several hate comments leveled at her, some being “Your (sic) not ladylike,” “You cant (sic) dance” and a constant refrain directed at older users, “Your (sic) too old to be on TikTok.” During the first scene of the clip, she held a walker while frowning to appear bothered by the comments. She lost the walker in the subsequent scene, instead choosing to adorn herself with a feather boa and a tiara while confidently retorting, “I am ladylike and a boss (expletive deleted) (expletive deleted).” In this scene, she took a swig of alcohol before blowing a kiss at her detractors.
Ageism and Ableism Still Rule the Day
Despite the study’s positive findings, the authors recognize that ageism and ableism are still rampant: "While it is heartening to see some of these older TikTokers defying age stereotypes related to frailty, we acknowledge that such representations of old age may create a slippery slope whereby ableist views are promoted...Sustained efforts should therefore be made to ensure that current initiatives to reframe aging factor in the heterogeneity of older adults so as to avoid perpetuating the dual stigma of ageism and ableism."