- Lonely people seek virtual connections to fulfill their innate need for social interaction.
- Loneliness and susceptibility to online deception are not limited by age or location.
- Parasocial relationships can blur the lines between reality and illusion, increasing risk of manipulation.
- The lack of digital literacy exposes people to risks online at any age.
A recent article in the South China Morning Post reported that millions of middle-aged women in China fell victim to an online influencer offering the lure of romance with the nostalgia of times past. The 30-something Xiu Cai presented a much older image on Douyin (the Chinese version of TikTok), lip-syncing to old love songs, dressing in 80s hairstyles, and wearing clothing favored by important government officials, against a backdrop of idyllic country scenes. Xiu Cai built a following of nearly 12 million, mostly older women, playing on their emotional needs and encouraging cash gifts and transfers that averaged the equivalent of $1,500-3,000 each but, in some cases, much more and all from people who could ill-afford it. When an exposé article revealed his real identity, Xiu Cai was shut down and criticized by state media for exploiting the older generation with “spiritual opium.” But why does this happen? Why are so many people taken in?
Virtual Social Connection Feels Real
People are intrinsically motivated to satisfy basic human needs. Psychologists from many different theoretical orientations have emphasized the critical importance of social connection to health and well-being. I know there are lots of people out there lamenting what they see as the replacement of “real” relationships with virtual ones. However, the logical extension of the theory is that people will choose the most effective ways available to meet their needs.
Virtual connection doesn’t feel virtual to the brain. This is why virtual experiences like VR can be used to treat mental health disorders such as PTSD and OCD (Martens et al., 2019) and why it feels so real when an Influencer looks you in the eye (camera lens) and talks to you. Any person in the media (social or otherwise) that a viewer sees frequently and likes can become the target of a parasocial relationship. While this one-sided emotional relationship exists only for the audience member, it can take on real meaning and function as a social surrogate in the absence of other relationships. The combination of loneliness, lack of digital literacy, and the human drive to seek social connection underscore a very real need, but the only levers we can change here are to provide social support and technology training. Circumstances, context, and experiences make us all vulnerable to online cons and misinformation.
The Problem Is Bigger Than a Single Con Artist or Influencer
Unfortunately, shutting down one influencer doesn’t solve the problem. Xiu Cai is one of many examples and why I continue to advocate for digital literacy. Susceptibility is not an age thing or a gender thing. These are the same vulnerabilities that made the Tinder Swindler successful in exploiting women on dating sites. China has an aging population in the aftermath of the one-child policy, and articles suggest that this has left many older Chinese women lonely and subject to mistreatment (Dong et al., 2009).
Loneliness has no country allegiance. It is a common problem among those with limited social access. One in three U.S. adults over 50 experience infrequent social contact, lack of companionship, and social isolation; that number increases to seven out of ten among those with poorer physical and mental health (Malani P et al., 2023, March). COVID-19 normalized virtual connections, and it’s not surprising that human contact online has become a solution. It is on-demand, interactive, and feels personal. However, teaching your Grandma to use Zoom is not the same as making her digitally safe and able to recognize misinformation and the cons that can take advantage of loneliness and isolation.
Social Media Use and Psychological Vulnerability
This case highlights important points around social media use and vulnerability:
- Humans are hardwired to need social connection: Loneliness and isolation take a toll on physical and mental health. Xiu Cai’s followers were vulnerable to someone offering a sense of connection, but they are not alone.
- Virtual relationships can act as social surrogacy: Parasocial relationships with influencers or celebrities can provide comfort, belonging, and entertainment. They are emotional and can be meaningful but are ultimately one-sided. Without understanding this, people can mistake parasocial relationships for real friendships, fall prey to fraud, and become even more isolated.
- We all need digital literacy: We do more and more online, yet with little training on how to engage safely and minimize risks. We worry about our kids, but let’s face it. People of all ages can and do mistake online personas for reality, share too much, or fall victim to scams. However, populations with less digital exposure and more limited social access may be particularly at risk for fraud.
- This is not just an age thing: While Xiu Cai targeted older followers, young people also form parasocial relationships. And while many are positive and developmentally appropriate experiences, young people can struggle with illusion vs. reality online (Gleason et al., 2017), making them vulnerable to influencers or deception on dating apps. Age is no protection against digital deception.
Older adults are not the only ones at risk online. Parasocial relationships, even having a parasocial “crush,” can be very positive in the absence of social connections. But feeling special and comforted without understanding what is real and what is fake can put people of all ages at risk.
It never hurts to review some tips with any of the late adopters of social media in your life. It will give you an excuse to call them.
5 Tips to Avoid Deception Online
- Look for signs an account is fake, such as no personal photos, few real-life friends engaging, etc.
- Never send money or gifts to someone you only know online.
- Talk to real-life friends and family if you have questions about an online relationship.
- Try to balance online time spent passively scrolling with ways to engage more offline with family and friends. Phone calls count.
- Learn some of the warning signs of scams, such as someone claiming to be a government official or a relative needing help, and beware of offers that are “too good to be true.”
Digital literacy isn’t hard or tricky. It’s basic training that creates awareness and strategies for managing life in the digital world. With knowledge and skills, we can all enjoy the benefits of social media and minimize the risks of harm and exploitation. But no matter our age, we must strive for a balance between online and offline relationships. Balance is a good rule for all aspects of life, but online, our well-being depends on it.
Dong, X., Beck, T., & Simon, M. A. (2009). Loneliness and mistreatment of older Chinese women: does social support matter? J Women Aging, 21(4), 293-302. https://doi.org/10.1080/08952840903285252
Gleason, T. R., Theran, S. A., & Newberg, E. M. (2017). Parasocial Interactions and Relationships in Early Adolescence. Front Psychol, 8, 255. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2017.00255
Malani P, Singer D, Kirch M, Solway E, Roberts S, Smith E, Hutchens L, & J., K. (2023, March). Trends in Loneliness Among Older Adults from 2018–2023. University of Michigan National Poll on Healthy Aging.
Martens, M. A., Antley, A., Freeman, D., Slater, M., Harrison, P. J., & Tunbridge, E. M. (2019). It feels real: physiological responses to a stressful virtual reality environment and its impact on working memory. Journal of Psychopharmacology, 33(10), 1264-1273. https://doi.org/10.1177/0269881119860156