Meet Techno granny – Social media bridges the generation gap

Alex mum photo

Everybody gets so much information all day long that they lose their common sense – Gertrude Stein

My 83-year-old father only has eight Facebook friends. Four of those are avatars of my eldest brother, who for some reason has opened accounts under different names. The other three are pages for resorts and hotels he has stayed in and who have tracked his Facebook identity. And then there’s me. So I’m certain my Dad’s newsfeed must be made up primarily of whatever I post. This is both touching and disconcerting.

My Dad was always comfortable with email but only begrudgingly joined Facebook after receiving a string of email requests and invitations from his children. But I can only assume that he now relishes aspects of it, because he never fails to notice when incriminating material appears on my wall.

When we speak on the phone (he lives on the NSW central coast) he will often mention certain posts or photos that have popped up on my Facebook wall in a mischievous, knowing tone. “You seem to be mixing with some charming characters, James. I saw one of your bearded mates on Facebook was wearing a dress the other day – what’s going on there?”

A recent House of Representative committee found that more than 60 per cent of Australians aged 55 to 64 use the internet, while just over 30 per cent of those over 65 spend time online. That’s well short of the average of around 80 per cent of Australians under the age of 50 who use the internet regularly. Perhaps it is time we actively encouraged our older relatives to come online. Despite the awkward images or news that we might sometimes prefer to shield parents from, inviting our parents in on social media can bridge a generational divide and reveal things we would struggle or avoid to communicate in person, but ultimately leave a deeper impression of real life.

Despite the stereotypes about older generations being lost when it comes to technology, a common story seems to be that parents (and grandparents) are often more adept than their kids would expect or actually wish them to be. One close female friend says her own kids have now dubbed her mother “techno granny” because “she keeps streaming pics from her trip across the USA and trying to facetime me every second of the day, even while I’m busy at work.”

Melbourne jewellery artist Teresa Lane, currently in Europe, reported receiving three e-cards for her birthday from her parents back in Australia. The cards feature organ music to the happy birthday theme along with animations of birds flying across sunsets and an underwater wonderland of a seashell opening onto a glittering pearl with words along the lines of “It’s a very special day that dawns once a year, a day filled with new hopes and dreams … HAPPY BIRTHDAY!”

“This can be a little uncool in front of a room of grungy Berlin artist friends. Mum has always been late with sending birthday cards all of her life – now she has found a way around it,” she says.

For Ben North and his boyfriend, Facebook has helped to bring them closer to his family. “Since my mum has come to terms with Facebook she has been much more communicative with me and my partner … she comments and likes our posts. I actually feel we are closer.” On a recent post featuring the couple lying dreamily in each others arms his mother had simply commented: “Ah, bless.”

For former Yarra Greens Mayor Alison Clarke, technology has enabled a new avenue of connection with her father. “My father is now 85, a former dairy farmer, and has always refused to talk to answering machines because he says it’s like talking to a post. However, he broke his leg about six years ago when a cow knocked him over, and after walking around on it for 24 hours, went to the doctor and ended up in full plaster, immobilised.

“This drove him a bit mad, but led to interest in his mobile phone. His little granddaughter taught him how to text, and now (after a lifetime of my mother always dominating our interactions) we have little chats by text that mum doesn’t know about, elbow each other about politics (he was a Labor voter all his life but has recently voted Green), share news and connect. His texts are often misspelt but he’s smart and funny and gorgeous and I love to hear the phone go ‘ping’ and see it’s from Dad.”

For about a decade from 1997 I spent most of my life outside Australia. Much of that time was spent in Berlin. In retrospect, one of the most nourishing aspects of the period was that I communicated more deeply with my parents than I do when we are living in the same place. We would open up to each other in rambling emails where we felt empowered to deliver no-holes-barred narratives on life on the other side of the globe.

I would tell them about the joy of riding bikes through Berlin in August at night-time when you felt you had the whole city to yourself and could cycle past landmarks like the Siegessaule and Checkpoint Charlie, drinking cheap German beer and winding up at rave parties witnessing punk performance art. In return I would hear about the state of politics in Australia, the latest highlights from the various film festivals, and details of step-siblings getting married or immanently traveling to India. Or sometimes I would just find out that my dad had scored a birdie in his golf tournament the previous weekend.

I found out later my father would print these email conversations out and store them in an old-school vertical filing cabinet where he keeps records on each of his children. I don’t know whether he is printing out my Facebook posts as well. These paper files, gathering real world dust, represent a marriage of sorts between the old and the new worlds.

This article first appeared in the Saturday Age

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