Although Sahar Ashfaq lives with her parents, she is often the one disciplining her housemates. Sometimes, when the 20-year-old walks by their bedroom in the middle of the night, she’ll spot her parents awake in bed, the glow from their smartphones illuminating their faces, and snatch their devices away. Otherwise, her 63-year-old dad and 58-year-old mom would stay up through the night watching videos on YouTube and Facebook, she said.
Her boomer parents’ phone dependency—and trust in the information they find there—runs so deep that Ashfaq’s father recently drove two hours to source hard-to-get herbs for a new natural wellness program he learned about on Facebook. “They would consider a YouTube video or a Facebook post as a research paper,” Ashfaq told VICE. “In reality, the internet is not that accurate.”
Ashfaq is used to seeing a phone in her parents’ hands: At the dinner table, while driving, on a walk. The one time her dad forgot his phone at home while running errands, he asked his son, Ashfaq’s brother, if he could use his to log into Facebook. Though Ashfaq has shared her concern with her parents, she’s been met with resistance—they don’t believe their phone use is abnormal, Ashfaq said. The irony of their role reversal isn’t lost on her. “I remember at some point in our life, my dad used to be like, ‘Why are you using your phone at the dinner table?’” she said. “Now it’s like we’re talking about important family matters and even in those times my dad is on his phone. He cannot stay off of his phone.”
While stereotypes paint millennials and Gen Z-ers as phone and social media-obsessed digital natives, reality shows a less stark generational divide when it comes to tech. According to a survey by senior living facility group Provision Living, boomers and millennials spend about the same amount of time on their phones each day. A 2016 Nielsen survey found over half of boomers reported that mealtimes were not technology-free.
The pandemic, where phones and social media facilitated the safest form of connection, only reinforced bad habits. According to a 2020 study by telecommunications company Ericsson that surveyed 200 million adults between the ages of 65 and 74 worldwide, seven in 10 respondents said they used messaging and social media apps daily during 2020. Half of respondents watched videos online daily during the pandemic, compared to just 20 percent in 2016.
But even though vaccinations have become widely available throughout the U.S., making socializing safely in person an option again, those habits might be sticking around. Now, when boomer parents and their adult children can finally reunite in person, excessive phone use can hinder family time. Between the constant messaging and posting live updates on Facebook, many boomers are making their millennial and Gen Z kids feel neglected.
One 28-year-old woman, who asked to remain anonymous so as to not upset her parents, has suffered through plenty of meals where her mom and dad were glued to their phones. Her parents are in their early 60s and work in marketing, the woman said, and frequently check their emails while out to dinner. From email, they mindlessly transition to texts, and then to social media, where they’ll read articles their friends have shared. Long stretches of time will pass where they haven’t glanced away from their devices. “They've gotten called out by the waiters for being on their phones too much while I’m just staring at the wall,” the woman told VICE.
While younger generations have fully integrated social platforms like Instagram and TikTok into their lives and embraced chat-based messaging for work and pleasure, older adults often have different motivations for picking up the phone. Boomers typically spend the most time on email, reading news, and keeping in touch with family, therapist Tarra Bates-Duford told VICE. “With my work with boomers, there’s a fear of younger people coming in and feeling like they’re going to become obsolete,” she said. Boomers might feel they’ll be pushed out by younger colleagues if they’re not on top of work, Bates-Duford explained. The desire to constantly check their phones stems from “a big push to stay in control and stay in the know.”
Boomers also take a more personal approach when it comes to their social media use. According to a 2019 survey by business insight firm The Manifest, boomers use Facebook more frequently than younger generations in order to connect and interact with others. A recent study showed that older adults turn to Facebook and Instagram “to compensate for the lack of social activity and face-to-face interactions in their daily lives.” “They’re not doing it for followings, they’re not checking for likes from people they don't know, they're using it for a very admirable purpose, in a way: to stay in touch with people they care about,” Catherine Price, author of How To Break Up With Your Phone and the forthcoming The Power of Fun: How To Feel Alive Again, told VICE. “But they haven't identified an etiquette for how to do so in a way that's not going to distract them from the moment they’re in with people who are physically present.”
Some adult kids feel their parents are suffering from the same “Instagram vs. reality” problem as younger generations. Although Lawrence Watling, 28, works for TikTok, his mother’s platform of choice is Facebook—where, to his chagrin, he believes she is not accurately representing her life. After he and his 62-year-old mom get into arguments, she’ll repost old photos of them together—the Facebook version of a subtweet, he said—as a way of projecting an idealization of their relationship, if only to herself. She’ll also post pictures of trips and vacations, writing about how much she enjoyed the getaway, when Watling knows she spent the whole trip on her phone.
Recently, Watling’s mom wrote a cryptic post only declaring “He’s gone,” worrying her network of Facebook friends. “We’re like, ‘Who?’” Watling told VICE. “Did something happen to my dad, god forbid?” The truth behind the post: The family dog died. “I think a lot of it is attention seeking,” he said.
When they spend time together, Watling said his mom doesn’t listen to or retain what he shares with her because she’s distracted by her phone. He hasn’t brought up how his mom’s phone use has impacted their relationship because he suspects she would react defensively.
In reality, most people are unaware of how much tech they’re consuming, Price said. Consciously, boomer parents know it's impolite to have distractions out at the dinner table—a value most millennials remember their parents instilling in them as kids—yet they absentmindedly reach for their devices, looking for a hit of dopamine on Facebook. The key to addressing boomer parents’ phone use, Price said, is to infuse playfulness by commenting on the issue with humor. Adult children could say “It’s been a year since we got to hang out in person. What’s more important on your phone than me?”
“Sometimes if you state what’s happening, that can be a wakeup,” Price said.
Bates-Duford also suggests using specifics when pointing out excessive phone use. Adult children can ask their parents what they’ve done over the last hour besides look at their phone. “If you can authentically tell me it was anything other than that phone, I’ll accept that,” Bates-Duford said. By pointing out exactly how the device interferes—the parent is distracted by it when spending time with their kids, notification sounds constantly interrupt the conversation—parents have a clearer picture of what needs to change.
Adult children can also offer their tech assistance to their parents. Ask if they’d like help turning most of their push notifications off, if there are any apps they’d like to be deleted, or if they’d like to learn how to put their phone on do not disturb. “Ask, ‘What’s annoying you about the way your phone behaves?’” Price said. “You can help boomer parents in some cases.”
But for some boomer parents, an intervention may be the only way to curb a bad habit. When Goodell David joined Instagram in 2018, he planned on using the platform to share images of his woodworking projects. The 58-year-old soon fell down the rabbit hole of his explore tab, spending up to three hours a day following new accounts and watching videos of ASMR wood whittling, wax polishing on floors, and power tool demos. When his kids, now 32 and 29, would visit, they’d attempt to pry his phone away. “Reminiscent of the times I’d yank the TV remote out of their hands to get them to go to bed early,” David told VICE.
With the family home for Thanksgiving the following year, David wanted to show his kids a video of floor sanding on Instagram, “not remembering my phone was connected to the Bluetooth speaker at home,” he said. The resulting sound was so loud and jarring that his kids decided they’d had enough and they sat him down to explain their issues with his Instagram use. “They understood how the videos were incredibly interesting and satisfying to watch, however, they didn’t like how often they cropped up in conversation and how I spent so much time on my phone,” David said. “They went into my settings to show me something called screen usage, and I saw, with a degree of horror, all the hours I’d spent watching the videos.” He now unplugs when spending time with family.
But other parents use their kids’ dismay at their phone use as an excuse to double down. Daniel Carter and his wife, both 61, are using their retirement to get into Facebook and Instagram as they travel around the country in an RV. Their main interactions are commenting on every post their grown sons make, calling them by childhood nicknames, and posting embarrassing photos from adolescence. “They’ve repeatedly asked us to stop trolling them,” Carter told VICE, “but we’re still at it because it’s fun.”
The novelty and entertainment that smartphones offer provide boomers with the same awe as it did millennials when they were younger. While younger generations have learned the value in remaining present with family and friends, their parents may not have had the same realization and, as a result, adult children often feel conflicted about whether or not to intervene with the people who raised them.
When Richard Kauffman’s dad went on kidney dialysis in 2011, he gifted him a smartphone to help pass the time. At first his dad was reluctant to learn the new technology, but soon embraced texting, games, and Twitter, one of the few apps Kauffman, now 34, introduced to his father. Although Kauffman’s dad primarily used the social platform to discuss conservative politics—views Kauffman didn’t share—he was glad he could facilitate his father finding a community online. “My gift to him was the phone and that enabled him to keep in the conversation,” Kauffman told VICE. “But it didn’t make us closer, essentially.”
Throughout the decade, the phone became an extension of Kauffman’s dad: The device would sit in his shirt pocket, alongside a slip of paper with his passwords. If he forgot it after leaving the house, he’d find a way to call his son and ask him to deliver the device to him; he’d stay up until four in the morning playing chess or tweeting and then head to dialysis a few hours later.
Kauffman’s dad died in May 2020 at 76. “When I came home, on the chair were his shoes, his cane, and his cellphone,” he said. Kauffman still has the phone; he considered logging into his dad’s Twitter to share the news with the people his dad engaged with online. The phone is a reminder of what he hopes was a lifeline and source of entertainment in his dad’s final years.
“I appreciate he was given a chance to reconnect.”
Follow Allie Volpe on Twitter.