‘Cyber-Seniors,’ a Movie About Teens Teaching Seniors How to Navigate the Internet

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Cyber-Seniors” is a comedic documentary by Saffron Cassaday about teenagers volunteering to teach people in their 80s and 90s how to use Facebook, YouTube and everything else on the world wide web. The joy in the students’ faces when they “get it” is priceless.

When I teach social media marketing, there is a glaring generational divide at age 45. The majority of my students over 45 start out with fear (masked behind disdain) of Facebook and Twitter. Middle-aged students complain that they don’t see the point and resent this feeling of pressure to learn. I often hear, “I don’t have time to hear what somebody had for breakfast.” Sadly, they’re oblivious to how old and out-of-touch that makes them sound. But, by the end of the first hour, they’ve had at least one “ah ha” moment where they’ve seen the light and understand that it’s not difficult to learn social media, nor is it a waste of time.

“Cyber-Seniors” is a family affair: Filmmaker Cassaday, now 26, got the idea for the documentary from her younger sisters Kascha, 21, and Macaulee, 19, who came up with the idea for a community outreach project in high school after watching their grandparents take to a hand-me-down computer. Three years ago, the girls gathered a group of willing teenagers and paired them up with seniors at local retirement residences.

As Kascha, Macaulee and their friends taught local seniors, Saffron came along to film it. The idea was to document the process in order to help support their program.

“At first I was just filming what was happening,” she said, “but then I realized there was an important story to tell.”

To round out the family participation, Mom came onboard as film producer, and Dad served as helpful sounding board.

Shura, 88, steals the movie. She has a singsong laugh and lights up at every new step she learns, from sharing photos and making friends on Facebook to creating a cooking tutorial video and uploading it to YouTube. Shura had no stove and was afraid of her microwave, so she figured out an entertaining workaround. She showed how to make grilled cheese sandwiches with tinfoil and an iron. Making a video about it sparked a competitive YouTube contest among the seniors. Marion, 93, gave Shura some serious competition with her entry, a rapping granny video.

To be honest, when I first got wind of this movie, I was not dying to see it. I thought it was going to be a dull “how to” documentary. You know, “How to Teach Seniors the Internet,” but I could not have been more wrong. It’s a story of connections and celebrations and enjoying all that 2-D and 3-D life has to offer.

“There’s a huge generation gap because it’s come so fast,” said one elder in the film. Bridging that gap is what this program and documentary are all about.

The youngest senior, Annette, 76, seemed the most averse to being online and even she comes around. Her lessons started with learning how to turn a computer on and off and her tutor, Henri, handled the lessons with humor and patience.

Ebert, 87, said, “I’m set up on Facebook but I don’t really know how to use it. My grandchildren are on Facebook and my great grandchildren and they use it a lot so I’d like to go on there.” Ebert has a lot of peeps to “friend” including four children, 10 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.

Here are some of the highlights from my exclusive interview with the director.

Dorri Olds: What was the most surprising part of this journey?

Saffron Cassaday: How quickly the mentors took to it and how much they enjoyed it.

What do you think the teens learned from the seniors?

How to be patient. A lot of them started out their lessons saying rapid-fire, “Do this, do that, move your hand, push that button,” and a lot of them are used to looking down at their phone when they’re talking, but they learned to speak clearly and slowly and make eye contact.

Do you and your sisters own a patent for the program?

No, and AARP has a similar program called “Mentor Up,” which they have just launched. It’s the same thing — young people teaching seniors tech-related things. So AARP has come on and sponsored several screenings across the country, which is great because they’re using our film as a tool to promote their own program, which is what we want. We want people to take it into their own hands. We’ve provided resources on our website, now you go out and do your thing.

What are the resources on the site?

We have handbooks available for download. One is for seniors that has tutorials, tips and a glossary, and one is for students about how to teach seniors. We offer a lesson plan.

Were there any scenes you liked that didn’t make it into the film?

Yes, when Shura said, “I had a dream last night, and it all makes sense now.” For the longest time she was struggling with trying to figure out what the Internet was and what a web page was in relation to the Internet. It was such a foreign concept to her. Her tutor, Max, had given her an analogy, and she said, “Last night in my dream I walked into the library, and I picked up this big book called ‘Internet.’ And inside the book, each page was a web page.” That analogy had suddenly clicked for her, and she was able to navigate from website to website with ease after that.

“Cyber-Seniors” opened in Los Angeles May 9 and premieres in New York Friday, May 16. It opens wide on Sept. 7, which is Grandparents Day. Not rated. 75 minutes.

Watch the trailer:

Meet Saffron Cassaday:

Dorri Olds is a contributing journalist for TheBlot Magazine. 

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