Dear Old People: The Internet Is Forever

At least part of Geraldo and Weiner’s online ineptness should be attributed to their age.

Lucas Jackson/Reuters/Corbis

Everyone has seen Geraldo Rivera’s sexy selfie at this point, almost certainly regretting it immediately after. No one more than the 70-year-old talk-show host himself, who just wants the whole thing to be over. “If my pix is so offensive to media critics, why do they keeping flashing the damn thing over & over?” Rivera whined Monday on Twitter.

And the Internet can barely hold all the crotch shots and lewd messages Anthony Weiner has pasted onto various social sites, discretions for which the New York City mayoral hopeful has repeatedly been outed and forced to offer uncomfortable apologies—the latest with sad wife in tow.

So why do they keep doing it?

In a radio interview, Rivera said he was lonely and drunk on tequila. Weiner has offered no real explanation, though he clearly exhibits some exhibitionist tendencies.

Drunk makes sense. Researchers at Indiana University studying privacy leaks on Twitter have confirmed the obvious explanation that inebriated tweeters are more likely to divulge the sorts of things they would be embarrassed by in the morning. An analysis of messages from prolific drunk tweeters showed about half of the drunken tweets fit into the categories of "disrespectful behaviors" ("Just taking my pants off") and "sexuality," in which users revealed sexual orientation or activities and desires.

But the thread that ties Rivera and Weiner together in their mutual misunderstanding of the way the Internet works is so simple a teenager could identify it: they’re old.

Weiner’s penchant for sexting with women young enough to be his daughter won’t slow the arrival of his AARP card, which will come in the mail in two short years; born in 1964, Weiner, 48, is on the edge of the baby-boom generation. And Rivera actually used advanced age to explain his social media faux pas: “I just figured that they’d cut me some slack because I am so old,” he told the DJs. “I learned how to use Twitter a couple of weeks ago, and there I was.”

It was a joke; Rivera’s been on Twitter since 2011, first posting: “I've finally caved & gone digital.” But there’s truth in the notion that social media is relatively new for older people. And because seniors—a group to which, rock-hard body or not, Rivera belongs—have been slower to adopt the new technology, they could be less likely to initially appreciate the “foreverness” of the Internet.

More than half of adults 65 or older went online for the first time in 2012, and 77 percent of baby boomers are now “wired”—numbers that have risen significantly over the past few years. Older people joining social networks are increasing, too. Social-networking-site use among Internet users ages 65 and older has grown more than 150 percent over the last three years.

In 2012, one in three seniors and half of baby boomers used a site like Facebook or Twitter, according to Pew Research.

The aging class might now even be embracing new technology as rapidly as the younger generations. According to a report released Tuesday by AARP, 78 percent of baby boomers and 52 percent of seniors are engaging with online content daily, and both groups have seen an over 40 percent increase of people purchasing portable devices to stay connected 24/7.

As Rivera and Weiner can attest, the transition from Luddite to social surfer isn’t always a smooth one, and the Internet abounds with examples of these older folks fumbling through a new Internet technology—some with better endings than others.

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In 2011, a video of an especially sweet older couple trying to set up a webcam without realizing it was already recording caught Bruce Huffman purring to his wife, “Just drop your dress a little bit and you’ll see your boobs.”

”But I don’t know what I’m recording. Shucks,” Esther Huffman lamented.

When their granddaughter later saw the accidental video, she posted it to YouTube and the couple became an Internet sensation garnering over 11 million views. Luckily, they seemed to enjoy the attention.

Not all senior moments are as laughable.

The Washington state attorney general’s Internet Safety page warns the over-50 crowd of the dangers of posting certain kinds of photos. “Consider your reputation before sharing a risqué photo or one that shows you exercising poor judgment (for example, drinking heavily),” it reads. Rivera managed both in one tweet.

It’s advice that could have saved the career of 51-year-old Maine high school football coach Paul Withee, who was forced to resign in 2011 after he mistakenly posted a nude photo on Facebook. The message, meant to be private, was up only for a moment and was deleted immediately, but not before a parent saw it and complained. "I'm embarrassed, I'm ashamed, I'm humiliated," Withee said at the time.

This type of social media regret is fairly common. One in ten social users has posted content they wish they hadn’t, according to a Pew poll. Interestingly, older users claim to be wiser—only 5 percent of those over 50 said they would take a post back compared with 15 percent of their younger counterparts.

Still, seniors can fall into the same pitfalls as young Internet users in terms of oversharing, Tammy Gordon, the vice president of social media for AARP, said in an email. Her group is working to educate seniors and soon-to-bes on using the new platforms responsibly, although their major concern is protecting the older generation from scams like the Nigerian businessman offers more perspicacious users will recognize as spam. “We offer training on our website and social media networks, but also through our state offices,” Gordon said. “Privacy is a major concern.”

Recent polls suggest there might be reason for some concern. One in 10 adults ages 55 and over copped to “sexting”—sending or receiving racy photos on their smartphone—in a 2012 online Harris Interactive poll. Young adults are still more likely to sext than seniors, but it’s worth wondering if those already over the hill might become more liberal sharers as they get more accustomed to using social media and technology.

While the threat of irresponsible usage exists, research shows the benefits of social sharing outweigh the potential harm. Rivera explained posting his semi-nude photo after he got home because he wanted to chat and “there's no one to talk to.” Research from the University of Luxembourg this year suggests social-media use can make older people healthier and combat loneliness, just the thing Rivera was looking for an escape from. It’s also been known to ward off depression.

So to our web-savvy seniors, tweet away. But before you do, you might want to look at PSAs warning teens of the dangers of Internet overshares. This one from the Ad Council cautions, "Once you post your picture online you can't ever take it back."

It's a lesson that Rivera, whose deleting of the naked selfie did nothing to dent its ubiquity, won’t soon forget.