In 2019, Nguyen Cong Thanh, 58, in Central Highlands Dak Lak Province, after returning from a trip with his former high school friends, made up his mind to spend VND4 million ($172) from his coffee crop earnings on a smartphone. He had his daughter install social networking apps and registered for several accounts.
“I have made friends with people of all ages. There are people I haven’t been in touch with in decades, since my childhood. I got to reconnect with them,” he beamed.
Thanh’s life has since seen some drastic changes. In particular, he started grooming himself more often after getting hooked on selfies.
He likes and comments on all his children and grandchildren’s status updates. He gets to see how his grandson is faring in Japan, if he is happy or not. If he misses him, all he has to do is make a video call without having to rely on anyone, Thanh’s 30-year-old daughter Thanh Giang maintained.
One night, he suddenly woke up to tell everybody in the house: “Hey guys, look, (comedian) Hoai Linh talked to me!”
Thanh has followed many of his favorite singers and actors whom he had previously only “met” on TV. Now, with everyone using social media, dropping someone a line is child’s play. Thanks to social networking sites, he has even created his own social circle based on shared interests and hobbies. Thanh could go on forever about cultivating bonsai trees in one group before jumping to another to discuss optimal pH levels for aquariums.
A survey by Pennsylvania State University of the U.S. shows seniors, from 60 to 86, have the habit of using social media like the young, mostly to reconnect with old time friends and those with shared interests. They also like to keep track of beloved ones. Thanh is one of many elderly Vietnamese to find amusement via social media.
According to statistics from the British marketing and advertising agency We Are Social, in 2019, over-45s were the biggest demographic of social media users in Vietnam. This group has increased up to 60 percent this year. A report from Vietnam Digital Advertising 2019 also reveals Vietnamese spend on average six hours and 42 minutes online daily.
Family members do not keep track of Thanh’s time dedicated to social apps but his devotion to the virtual world has been troublesome at times.
Thanh no longer looks forward to playing with his toddler grandchild or taking the elder one to school. His eyes are glued to his phone even when he has guests over. The account bearing username Nguyen Cong Thanh posts at least 5-6 times per day. Posts could include a selfie in front of a coffee farm, a blooming flower in front of a house, or a chicken coop.
“Sometimes he did not even notice the kid was crying out loud because he was busy thinking up attention-grabbing content,” Thanh’s daughter lamented.
There was this one time Thanh had seen a photograph of five brothers uploaded by the eldest. However, the three brothers were all tagged except for him. He thought he was looked down upon as the uneducated, far-flung black sheep of the family while they were all officials.
In bitter resentment, he commented: “I guess this ‘Thanh’ already died then.” After the incident, he did not take any calls from his family.
“Your uncle despises me. He did not tag me in the photo, nor think of me as a brother. From now on, I will cut myself out of their lives so they won’t feel humiliated,” Thanh Giang recalled him saying.
It turned out that unlike his brothers, auto-tagging did not work for Thanh only because he was a new “Facebooker”. The eldest was as new to the process as Thanh and could not tag Thanh in the photo. After an explanation, Thanh finally agreed to make up with his brothers.
Parents encountering “accidents” on social platforms is something Phuong Thu is used to but what really worries her is that her mother, Hoang Hong Ha, in northern midland Phu Tho Province could unwittingly fall victim to scams and fake news.
As a social network user, Hong Ha developed a sudden addiction to shopping and watching commercial live stream videos. With plenty of products available at a mere click, she could buy nearly anything from pot plants to clothing and footwear, with quality “not guaranteed.”
The other day, Phuong woke up to see her mother crying in desperation. She had ordered more than 10 lily bulbs and already transferred a deposit of VND100,000 ($4.3) but had still not received the shipment. Familiar with such scams, she texted the shop owner later only to be bombarded with insults.
“I was up all night being angry and arguing with her,” a frustrated Hong Ha told her daughter.
At the beginning of this year, she and her social circle became propagators for “eating hard-boiled eggs at midnight to fight Covid-19.” Hong Ha did not only share the information but make sure her cousins and children also knew about it by telling everyone to eat eggs to counter the pandemic. Her daughter, Phuong Thu, was unable to sleep that night because people kept calling her to ask if her mother was mentally sound.
“The elderly are addicted to their phones mostly because of biological, psychological and social factors. Social network abuse might be a sign of loneliness,” Malaysian psychologist Yap Chee Khong commented.
Phuong Thu believes this holds true for her mother who, used to the countryside lifestyle, moved to Hanoi to care for her sister’s kid. She spends every day with her grandchild who has yet to talk. Her only connection to the outside world is via social networks.
“I sometimes resent her but upon reflection, as her child, I might be ignorant of her feelings,” she said.
Thanh Giang in the Central Highlands province of Dak Lak admitted to “leaving her parents behind.”
During meals, inside jokes formerly confused seniors. But now they have become an “updated version” of themselves and can keep up with pretty much anything, just like their younger family members,” she said.
Communications specialist Le Quoc Vinh, chairman of LeBros, a marketing agency, commented that social platforms are appealing to both young and old. However, seniors with more leisure time tend to access them more frequently. They are usually biased and vulnerable to online con artists and scammers.
“Many of my acquaintances easily share information without fact-checking, fork out money to join groups and unknowingly get entangled with scams,” he affirmed.
Vinh suggests youngsters spend more time with their parents and seniors to combat loneliness and actively engage with credible sources of information to avoid “virtual traps.”