Learn how to avoid scams and build a happier, more positive community online.
While younger adults continue to jump from one social media platform to another, older adults tend to remain loyal to Facebook. Half of those 65 and older are active on the site, according to the Pew Research Center. That makes it the most popular platform for this age group.
There’s good reason to use Facebook. “It’s terrific for connecting with friends and family and finding out what they’re doing,” says Deborah Heiser, Ph.D., an aging specialist and applied development psychologist based in Great Neck, New York. In fact, older users say that maintaining contact with friends and family is their top reason for using the site, according to a 2019 meta-analysis published in Ageing and Society. (Other common reasons include staying connected with younger generations, curiosity about other people’s lives, and remaining cognitively active.)
This ability to build community online is especially important today, after a year-plus with limited in-person interaction. Watching a video of your niece accepting a diploma or reading updates from your high school friend group provides feel-good moments that keep you connected to others, Heiser says.
But not all Facebook use is equally positive. Without realizing what they’re doing, many users engage in rude behavior, share too many personal details, and repost false or misleading information. Older users are often most guilty of this last faux pas. Compared to younger Facebookers, those over 65 shared nearly seven times as many articles from fake news sites, according to researchers from Princeton and New York universities.
Negative behavior can make Facebook less enjoyable for everybody. And in some cases, it creates a cynical environment where scammers can proliferate. Roughly 22% of successful money scams begin on social media sites, according to the Better Business Bureau.
With social media becoming increasingly important to our daily lives, it’s useful to ask: Are you a good Facebook user? For most people, the answer won’t be a simple yes or no. More likely, it will land somewhere in between. But you can help keep the site safe and enjoyable for yourself — and everybody else, for that matter — by following these seven expert-backed social media rules.
1. Build your community with care
You are in complete control of who you interact with online. If you receive a friend request from someone you don’t know and instinctively click “confirm” to be polite, “it’s like inviting someone you don’t know into your home,” Heiser says.
That person could be a scammer, or they might just post negative stories designed to make their “friends” angry. It’s the online equivalent of throwing their feet on your coffee table and putting an empty milk carton back in the fridge.
So don’t feel bad about turning down requests. Even if you know the person, you might not want to interact with them on a personal level, says Don Frederiksen, a retired corporate IT professional and founder of Senior Tech Club, an organization that helps people navigate digital technology. “If somebody from my little hometown in Minnesota puts out a friend request, I’m likely to accept that,” says Frederiksen. “But I’m less likely to accept from people I’ve worked with.”
If you’re trying to bring more people into your friend circle, just be deliberate about it, he says. Search for specific names by writing them in the search bar in the top left corner of any Facebook page. Once you find the person, send a friend request. You can also use the People You May Know feature. It finds friends of friends you may recognize, along with people from your alma mater or workplace.
2. Make your news feed a feel-good place
Your Facebook news feed is the stream of updates and photos that shows up on your personalized home page, Frederiksen explains. This is where you find a running log of what your friends post for you to see.
The feed is constantly updating, which can be a source of joy when it’s filled with happy photos and updates. But it can quickly “turn into a downer” if it’s filled with antagonizing comments, offensive memes, and sentiments that fly in the face of your beliefs, says Heiser.
“You want to make sure your feed is full of things you like, things that make you happy,” she says. If that’s not the case, change your feed. Don’t get drawn into negative feelings or conversations.
Say someone is always posting things you find irritating. Maybe it’s your neighbor’s nonstop selfies, or your old college roommate’s unhinged political ideas. Just click the three little dots in the top right corner of their posts to access a drop-down menu, and then click “unfollow.” Voilà. Now you’ll no longer see what they share. And they will not know you unfollowed them, so no feelings will be hurt. Assuming they haven’t unfollowed you, they’ll even continue to see your posts.
If unfollowing feels too permanent, you can also “snooze” your friends for 30 days. That’s a short-term version of unfollowing.
Finally, don’t be afraid to simply unfriend people. This is more akin to a permanent breakup: You will no longer see their posts, and they will no longer see yours. To do this, go to the person’s Facebook profile, click the “friends” button to access the drop-down menu, and click “unfriend.” The person won’t be notified that you have unfriended them, but if they look at their friends list and notice your name missing, they may put two and two together.
3. Delete your birth year
Receiving birthday greetings from friends and family is a Facebook highlight. But Frederiksen strongly recommends sharing only your birth month and day, not the year.
“There could be bad people out there who are looking to learn more about you,” he warns. “If they learn your full birthdate, all of a sudden they have a piece of data that could be used to crack your financial world."
The same applies with sharing your birthplace or filling out one of those popular “20 Things About Me” surveys that ask where you met your spouse or the model of your first car. Often these provide information that can be used to target you with scams or aggressive marketing.
“You might think it’s harmless to share this information on Facebook, but these might be your passwords or answers to a security question for your bank account,” Frederiksen says.
4. Filter out the fake news
The term “fake news,” popularized during the 2016 U.S. presidential election, refers to “false or misleading content intentionally dressed up to look like news articles, often for the purpose of generating ad revenue,” according to the Princeton and NYU study mentioned above.
This sort of misinformation can also be used to gin up anger and sway political opinions. Users often don’t realize they’re sharing fake news. But to avoid spreading false information, use these strategies from FactCheck.org, a nonpartisan, nonprofit website for voters that aims to reduce the level of deception and confusion in U.S. politics.
- Consider the source and the author. Is the article from a legitimate, recognizable website? Pay attention to detail. For example, the URL for ABC News is https://abcnews.go.com, butabcnews.com.co (note the missing “m”) was one known distributor of fake news.
- Check the date. If you’re posting a workout you love or a cupcake recipe, the date might not matter. But if it’s news, check the publication date. If the article is several years old, the information could be outdated.
- Share only what you read. Headlines are designed to draw readers in, but they don’t always accurately represent the story that follows. So, if a captivating headline catches your attention, avoid hitting the share button immediately. The story might not say what you think it does. If you don’t have time to read it, just keep scrolling.
5. Resist the urge to click every ad
When you sign up for any social media platform, it begins gathering data about you — age, email address, location, and so on — says Frederiksen. The more you use the platform, the more it learns.
One of the ways it gathers information is by monitoring what you click — both on Facebook and while poking around the internet. Each click tells the platform a little more about your opinions, shopping preferences, daily schedule, and more. That’s one reason the ads that pop up on your Facebook page seem so perfectly tailored to you.
In this way, Facebook “is not really free,” Frederiksen says. “There is a profit motivation.” You can’t stop this kind of targeting entirely, but you can manage it by fighting the urge to click on things you don’t want in your feed.
For instance, if you know you’re prone to spending too much money on shoes, try to resist the urge to click on a pair that pops up in your feed. You goal should be to click only on things you want to see more of.
6. Share — but don’t overshare
Some people document their every move on Facebook. But don’t feel like you have to follow their lead, says Frederiksen. “You get to choose your level of engagement,” he says. You can post nothing at all, or only occasionally share thoughts, photos, and articles of interest.
Frederiksen, for example, posts “very little, but I’m engaged because I appreciate reading and viewing what other people share.” His daughter, on the other hand, posts nearly every day. That’s fine. “She’s comfortable with that,” he says. “I get to consume what she shares, and I’ll occasionally post a comment or just give it a thumbs-up.”
In the spirit of careful sharing, you can also limit who sees your posts. When crafting an update, you’ll see a drop-down menu underneath your name. By default, you’re posting to your entire “friends” group. But you can change that to “specific friends” (you get to choose who makes the list) or “friends except” (where you can avoid people whom your post might upset). To save time, you can also create a list of “close friends” that you can select with one click.
7. Ask your family and friends if they’re okay with you posting their photos
That snap of your granddaughter on the swing set may make you smile from ear to ear, but your son might not be thrilled that you posted without his permission. Frederiksen suggests talking with your children about their privacy concerns if you intend to post pictures of the grandkids. Nearly 20% of parents who use social media decline to share things about their children on these sites due to privacy-related concerns, according to the Pew Research Center.
Likewise, when posting pics of friends, make sure they’re on board. Some people may prefer not to have pictures of themselves posted, or they may just not want to be tagged.
That said, once you obtain permission, sharing photos from your younger years is a wonderful way to revisit memories, Heiser says. That black-and-white pic of you and your high school friends standing in front of your favorite old diner will surely get a good dialogue going, sparking warm and fuzzy feelings of nostalgia in the process.
Social networking sites and the experience of older adult users: A systematic review
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