It’s not Gen Z who need to be protected from social media – it’s boomers

JK Rowling has come under fire for her social media attacks on transgender people  (AP)
JK Rowling has come under fire for her social media attacks on transgender people (AP)

Hi mum, my phone has broke and I have a new one, please save this number x.” Remember this infamous scam text that did the rounds back in 2022 and 2023? Sent to a huge number of users on WhatsApp, it was a simple yet brilliant trick – spam a load of people purporting to be their children, and a proportion of those targeted will be in the right demographic. There were variations, but the messages usually involved entreating the parent to urgently lend money for rent or similar, to be transferred directly to a “landlord’s” bank account.

The scammers would rely on an emotional response – tugging at the heartstrings by pretending there was an emergency of some kind and their child needed help – to override parents’ suspicion. It worked. An estimated £1.5m was handed over to fraudsters between February and June 2022, according to Action Fraud, the UK’s reporting centre for fraud and cybercrime. The racket also swept across Australia in 2022, with over 11,000 people reporting they had fallen victim to it and losses totalling A$7.2m (£3.7m).

It was obviously a hugely upsetting experience for victims. But it’s also one way in which, contrary to popular opinion, baby boomers might just need protecting from the risks posed by social media more than Generation Z.

Much has been made of the fact that the younger generation can’t get off their phones and struggle with IRL interactions; that they’re all addicted to TikTok and regularly get sucked down YouTube rabbit holes pushing ever-more polarising viewpoints. But, in some ways, they are best adapted to digital life – there’s an argument that, having grown up online, they understand its pitfalls better than their older counterparts.

Take, for example, posting offensive opinions or thoughtless comments on social media. We’ve all heard the horror stories of both celebrities and civilians burned on the pyre of so-called “cancel culture” after an off-the-cuff comment or tasteless remark went viral. And that’s before you even get to the problematic IRL behaviour that can get individuals into trouble when it’s videoed, uploaded and shared (the whole “Karen” phenomenon being a good example).

“Baby boomers/Gen X really took to early social media platforms, especially Facebook, and one of Facebook’s characteristics that suits a lot of members of these generations is that it feels more closed,” says Eve Ng, an associate professor of media arts and studies at Ohio University and author of Cancel Culture: A Critical Analysis. “Sure, you’re able to set posts to ‘public’, but my sense is that the default settings for most FB users is having their content visible only to friends and friends of friends. So on FB, there’s a lot more open expression about (potentially) contentious topics.”

From being fired to having their TV shows cancelled or film franchises revoked, various baby boomer and older Generation X media personalities have paid the ultimate price for sharing “jokes” online that hit the wrong note. Radio presenter Danny Baker, 66, was axed by the BBC for comparing Meghan Markle and Prince Harry’s child to a chimp; ABC ceased airing the rebooted Roseanne sitcom after its star and co-creator Roseanne Barr, 71, referred to Barack Obama aide Valerie Jarrett, who is Black, as an “ape” in a tweet; comedian Kathy Griffin, 63, lost her gig presenting CNN’s new year coverage in 2018 for sharing a picture of a decapitated Donald Trump online; and actor James Gunn, 57, was swiftly fired from the Guardians of the Galaxy movie series when tweets emerged in which he joked about Aids, sexual assault and adult relationships with children. Trump didn’t even let being Potus stop him from tweeting his every passing thought, regardless of the global political implications (such as the potential to start World War Three).

Roseanne Barr had her show cancelled after racist tweets (Getty)
Roseanne Barr had her show cancelled after racist tweets (Getty)

And then there are the contingent of divisive characters like JK Rowling and Graham Linehan, both of whom have traded well-respected careers and critically acclaimed bodies of work for being more closely associated with increasingly savage social media crusades against transgender people. Controversy surrounding the Harry Potter author’s ideological stance on gender had been bubbling for years, but her most recent tirade on Twitter/X felt particularly vicious. The more nuanced arguments Rowling used when she first started writing about these issues have slowly been cast aside in favour of stronger positions online – culminating this month in her sharing a thread naming various trans women, finishing with the line: “Obviously, the people mentioned in the above tweets aren’t women at all, but men, every last one of them.”

Linehan, meanwhile, has swapped a reputation for being the creator of some of the most genius comedy series of the past 30 years – Father Ted, The IT Crowd, Black Books – for that of a vehement anti-transgender “activist” on social media (it is the sole topic occupying his incredibly active Twitter/X account, which has been suspended on numerous occasions for causing offence). His recently released autobiography, Tough Crowd, even acknowledges this trajectory in the tagline: “How I Made and Lost a Career in Comedy”. Both he and Rowling seem to have fallen victim to the curse of the social media echo chamber, which often serves to further galvanise views and inherently encourages more and more extremist rhetoric over time by rewarding it with increased engagement.

It perhaps makes sense that a certain demographic – those young enough to feel compelled to engage with social media, but not young enough to have a healthy respect for the potential reach a post might have if it goes viral – is more susceptible to sharing “cancel”-worthy opinions online.

“Boomers may not always remember that anyone can screenshot anything – even on a relatively closed platform like Facebook – and repost elsewhere,” says Professor Ng. “I am still surprised how much I see my own Facebook friends share there (I’m Gen X), given that fact.”

Boomers may not always remember that anyone can screenshot anything – even on a relatively closed platform like Facebook

Eve Ng, associate professor of media arts and studies at Ohio University

Gen Z are much more likely to agree that the rise of cancel culture has meant they increasingly self-censor when and with whom they share their opinions, according to one study from 2022 – 40 per cent compared to just 21 per cent of baby boomers. The same research found that Gen Z are also the generation most likely to hide their perspective on topical issues because they’re afraid of how people will respond (35 per cent compared to 16 per cent of baby boomers).

It’s not to say that we should all go around censoring our true opinions – more that native internet users better understand there’s a time and a place to do so, and that social media might not always be the most safe or sensible platform. Even if that thoughtless post or comment doesn’t turn around to bite you immediately, there’s every chance it could be dredged up to haunt you in 10 years, ruining your career prospects or relationship. Cautionary tales like that of former Teen Vogue editor Alexi McCammond – who was forced to resign from her dream job after homophobic and racist tweets she’d written a decade previously while still a teenager resurfaced – are etched on young people’s memories.

“I think I made a Facebook account when I was about 10 years old,” Emily*, 23, tells me. “When my friends and I got home from school, we would update our Facebook statuses and write on each other’s walls, chatting about what happened at school that day. I’d also make albums on my Facebook profile documenting days out with my mates and would post cryptic song lyrics when I was feeling sad. Basically, we posted every aspect of our lives online!”

This early behaviour of over-sharing prompted a social media “clean-up” from Emily and her Gen Z peers when they got older, she says. “There came a point in sixth form when I realised, damn, this is embarrassing – and also, do I want a future employer to see the inner workings of my 10-year-old brain? Only the brave of my generation keep their old statuses or Instagram posts. I feel like a lot of us had a reckoning before going to university or joining the workforce when we realised our childhood digital footprint needed to be invisible.

Baby boomers are more susceptible for certain types of online fraud (Getty)
Baby boomers are more susceptible for certain types of online fraud (Getty)

“I think in general my generation are a lot more careful about what we post because we embarrassed ourselves very early on.”

This stance is backed up by data that suggests Gen Z is more privacy conscious than previous generations, with 64 per cent switching on privacy settings on their Facebook accounts compared to just a third of users aged 65 and over, according to a survey by Pew Research Center.

And it’s not only misjudged Insta posts that baby boomers are more prone to – they’re far more likely to circulate fake news on social media. One 2019 study conducted by NYU and Princeton found that American Facebook users over the age of 65 shared nearly seven times as many articles from fake news domains as those aged between 18 and 29.

I think in general my generation are a lot more careful about what we post because we embarrassed ourselves very early on

Emily*, 23

Scam-wise, they’re also at risk of losing more money to romance fraud – schemes which draw people in with fake tales of love via social media or dating apps, then ask for payments of gift cards, wire transfers and cryptocurrency – than younger cohorts. The median reported loss across all romance scams in the US in 2021 was $2,400 (£1,930) – but this amount was more than three times higher ($9,000) among adults aged 70 and over.

In the UK, meanwhile, “when it comes to romance fraud, those aged 51-65 accounted for the majority of cases where money is lost”, says Dr Jessica Barker MBE, author of Hacked: The Secrets Behind Cyber Attacks. “Romance fraudsters often play a long con, spending a lot of time manipulating victims who may be vulnerable, for example targeting people who have recently lost a spouse.”

However, she stresses that no one is immune from this kind of scam – “the data shows that, ultimately, romance fraud does not discriminate. There was an 80-year age gap between the youngest and oldest victims of romance fraud reported to TSB Bank. None of us are immune.” Regardless of age, the signs to look out for remain the same, including “love bombing and a keenness to send you gifts – a way to accelerate the relationship and make you feel that you owe them something, as well as a ploy to manipulate you into sharing personal information that can be used for identity fraud”.

The moral of the story is this: young or old, we’re all at risk when we go online. And with the rise of AI, deepfakes and more, those risks are only set to grow in number and complexity. So let’s swap “OK boomer” tropes for compassion and understanding to others on social media – and maybe keep the more contentious jokes offline.

*Name has been changed