Gao Xiangjin used to know all the names of players in the American baskeball leagues, but since relations between the US and China soured, once-daily NBA broadcasts are now far less frequent. So Gao started watching China’s men’s basketball instead, until reports about corruption turned him off earlier this year. He now watches China’s women’s basketball, not on television, but on Douyin, the original, Chinese version of TikTok.
Gao is 69 years old, one of a growing cohort of elderly people who have moved away from television and gravitated to Douyin, China’s most popular short-form video app. There are 267 million people aged over 60 in China, according to official statistics, and while China’s government has tried to limit young people’s use of Douyin, worried about its addictive nature, many of the app’s habitual users are their parents, or even grandparents.
“Whenever he’s not cooking, swimming, or sleeping, he’s on Douyin,” his daughter Helen says. “It’s brainless entertainment. It’s better to be playing with a cat, it’s better to be doing anything else.” She’s not a Douyin user herself. “I already have attention problems,” she says. “Douyin would make that worse.”
A former soldier, Gao follows the Israel-Palestine crisis and the war between Ukraine and Russia through videos made by commentators. He shows me one where a political analyst translates headlines from English-language media outlets, such as The Times of Israel. He watches others for their analysis of military strategy.
While television broadcasts the official viewpoint, Gao says that on Douyin there are often videos from different camps putting their views across. The censors might get to them after a while, but it’s possible to witness a spectrum of opinions. Some of them are speaking with inside experience of the Party system, some are academics studying at Western universities, and others don’t disclose anything about their backgrounds; to many elderly users, they carry the same amount of authority.
Douyin is not just Gao’s source for news, but also basketball shoes. “Just look at those green shoes,” Helen says, gesturing to a pair of eye-catching sneakers on a shoe rack by local brand Tebu. “They’re ridiculous!”
Around once every five videos, Gao says, he gets an advert. Swiping on his phone, there’s a news video, then a woman pops up selling something, followed by news, news, news, then an advert for dates from Xinjiang. Gao is happy with his sneakers, paying just over $27 for them. He says that their quality is better than a pair he bought from Japan for more than four times the price.
Li Yongjian, a junior lecturer at Erasmus University Rotterdam who has studied social media use among elderly people in China, says that Covid-19 was a watershed moment. Strict Covid controls left elderly people seeking connection, and they turned to social media. Cheaper smartphones and data bundles have eased peoples’ passage into the short-video world—previously, older people typically eschewed the expensive gadgets that younger generations buy without hesitation (or because of cultural values that reward self-sacrifice, parents would buy for their children, but not themselves). “They think good things are not for them,” Li says.
Now, a bundle of 30 gigabytes of data plus 200 minutes from China Telecom costs as little as $18, and older people have become targets for China’s biggest phone brands. Li says that he’d bought a Xiaomi phone for his grandfather, which cost $50. With a huge screen and a long-life battery, it was advertised as “the phone for your grandpa.” Many apps, including Douyin, were preloaded onto the phone when it was started up. Li did a few rounds of searches on the app for his grandfather’s hobbies—fishing, the military, and cars—so that the algorithm registered those preferences.
His grandfather’s own use of the app has added other facets of his life, like farming, to his feed. He watches videos of others living as he did when he was young: how they harvested, then set up a cauldron in the field to start cooking. “It gives him a sense of being seen,” Li says. “There is still a place reserved for them, not only offline but also in the online world.”
Many older people are picking up technology because in modern China there’s little choice. Navigating what is increasingly a post-cash society is difficult without a smartphone—even those in need asking for donations on the street have QR codes.
There’s also the loneliness that many elderly people experience, as their children live far away from them, having found work or built a life elsewhere. They might have uprooted their own lives to join them, losing soft ties to their community and the familiar faces that accompanied them as they went about daily life.
Those elderly people who leave their hometown for other cities are called laopiao, or “old drifters.” “It’s not every country where grandparents would move to another city just to look after their grandchildren,” says Huang Chenkuang, a ceramics artist in Beijing. Huang’s mother is one of them—she left her community to take care of Huang’s sister’s children.
This part of the elderly population can live limited lives, moving between just three physical locations: the place they go to buy groceries, where they drop their children off from school, and their own community complex.
Huang’s mother didn’t move far. Originally from Jiangxi, she moved to Zhejiang, a six-hour drive away, and the living habits of those two southern provinces are similar. Had she moved to a northern province, “like Beijing, that would have been more difficult for her,” Huang says. Whenever her mother comes to visit her in Beijing, she complains about the dry climate and about how she can’t buy the dishes she eats from her hometown. “She’s not the kind of person who can quickly join people in a new place and dance with them,” Huang says. Instead, she learnt to dance from a teacher on Douyin who had a livestream every evening.
“She would suddenly cook a dish I’d never seen her cook before,” Huang says. Liangpi, a kind of flat noodle usually dressed with cucumber and vinegar, isn’t common in the south, but her mother presented her with the dish. Her mother picked up new hobbies, and with them, smartphone habits.
“All the attention is no longer on you, because there’s a highly entertaining toy there,” Huang says. “Sometimes when I go home, I will be a bit worried. I feel we might have chatted more one-on-one in the past, talking about recent events.” As elderly people post content of their own on Douyin, the gap between generations when it comes to online anxieties is closing. “Sometimes she’ll say, ‘I haven’t used it in several days and I’ve lost fans!’” Huang says of her mother.
While other apps, such as WeChat, require users to add friends to be able to comment and view their updates, Douyin makes it easy to connect to strangers and opens up the possibility of getting a response from people outside their normal circles. On Douyin, any user can comment on a video. It pushes recommended “friends” to users depending on who they’ve added already, so it is easy to add new people, and once you become “friends” with someone on the app, you can chat and video call.
The app also encourages users to upgrade their video-editing skills, or develop them. Gao proudly showed me a video where he cut shots of himself diving into a river near his home where he swims in all seasons. It’s the result of a five-day short-video editing course, which he took after seeing an advert on the platform. There, he learned about camera angles and framing; he wasn’t interested in the bits of it that taught how to make money from videos. He places a bowl in front of him and angles his phone. “I make sure it takes up a third of the screen.”
There are now elderly Chinese influencers whose fans number beyond their own demographic. Many more consider themselves content creators, if not for money, for their own enjoyment and mental well-being. They don’t want to be forgotten. “For them,” Li says, “Their grandparents have already faded away.” Li’s grandfather keeps track of when his grandson likes his videos. He’ll ask, “Did you see that I uploaded this yesterday?” Li says. He wants to know that his grandson cares.