'Harvesters of the old' are slick in targeting the emotional needs of the elderly

Yang Jian
The "Scholar" may be off the air, but there are plenty more purveyors of "electronic vitamins" for seniors who are hoping to make money by filling a void in elderly lives.
Yang Jian
'Harvesters of the old' are slick in targeting the emotional needs of the elderly

The Scholar, Xiu Cai, flashed his signature smile at over 12 million followers.

It's tough being old. There is a sense of loss, regrets and loneliness. What a golden opportunity for some Chinese Internet idols to exploit!

Recent headlines about the suspension of a popular content creator known as the "Scholar" on the TikTok-like Douyin platform has raised questions about the risks elderly people may face when they go online seeking succor.

The Scholar, known online as "Xiu Cai," had over 12 million followers before allegations of tax evasion wiped him from screens.

His content primarily comprised simple videos filmed in rural settings, with appealing content aimed at charming older folks.

Half of his followers were 50 years or older and 70 percent of them women and half of them 50 years or older.

The 39-year-old Internet sensation surnamed Xu from Anhui Province dresses in polo shirts or suits, sports a well-groomed hairstyle, casually gazes into the camera, then playfully smiles or starts singing -- creating a moment that feels like a chance encounter on the street.

He lip-syncs love song to his fans and calls them "big sisters."

'Harvesters of the old' are slick in targeting the emotional needs of the elderly

Some popular videos of the Scholar on Douyin.

This simple charm offensive apparently has an astonishing impact on the hearts of countless older rural women.

A 72-year-old woman traveled 1,700 kilometers from northeast China's Jilin Province to the county where Xu lives to meet him and bring him local specialties from her hometown. Another fan, a middle-aged woman, generously sent cash to Xu during his livestreams.

It's not just men focusing on his demographic. A female content creator known as "Yi Xiao Qing Cheng," or "smile that charms a city," boasts 19.15 million followers on Douyin. Nearly 80 percent of her fans are middle-aged and elderly men.

In a recent showdown, Scholar and Yi Xiao Qing Cheng engaged in a livestreaming competition that attracted a record of over 20 million viewers. The top five viewers gave the Scholar at least 100,000 yuan (US$13,657) each in "tips."

Following the Scholar's suspension, his female counterpart's social media accounts posted a notice that she is "resting at home." She hasn't made a video since August 21.

Fans have expressed concern about the absence of both idols. "We're worried," one user commented.

These creators, often referred to as "harvesters of the old and middle-aged," have mastered techniques to appeal to older generations. Some rely on pop music popular decades ago; others cut dashing figures from rural-themed TV shows, said Li Junnan, a senior psychology consultant.

These videos target emotional needs, she said. They hark back to nostalgic times, presented with cheerful demeanors and loving tones.

'Harvesters of the old' are slick in targeting the emotional needs of the elderly

Following the suspension of the Scholar, the account of female version "Yi Xiao Qing Cheng" went into limbo with a post that she is "resting at home."

Li said the widespread accessibility of smartphones and the mobile Internet enables such practices even in the most remote corners of the country.

Some other experts said the phenomenon reflects the loneliness and emotional void experienced by many elderly individuals. They call the short videos "electronic vitamins" for the elderly.

In China, around 140 million elderly people, nearly half of the elderly population, are living alone or apart from their children. They want someone to chat with and share everyday experiences, but they struggle to find an attentive listener. In many ways, these content creators fill that void.

'Harvesters of the old' are slick in targeting the emotional needs of the elderly

A 72-year-old woman traveled from northeast China's Jilin Province to east China's Anhui Province to meet the Scholar.

Many viewers use these platforms to share the stories and joys of their own lives. Some even write explicit love poetry to their idols.

One middle-aged fan explained that he turns to these short videos for relaxation after a long day at work.

"Seeing someone with a beaming smile brings comfort and relaxation, making me willing to become a fan," he said.

A woman in her 60s said she had plenty of free time after retiring. The videos of the Scholar brightened her life, she said, and she enjoyed the experience of interacting with other fans.

It is natural for older people, just like younger generations, to find joy in watching online videos for relaxation, just as others read books or watch movies, Li said.

She said many older people grew up during times when people didn't openly discuss intimacy, but the Internet has opened up a space to express latent desires that were previously taboo.

"It's important to recognize that everyone has their own preferences for relaxation," she added.

'Harvesters of the old' are slick in targeting the emotional needs of the elderly

Yi Xiao Qing Cheng's captivated numerous elderly male fans.

Currently, the elderly have become a major user group of short- video and livestreaming platforms.

A recent survey reveals that users aged 51 and above account for 19 percent of Douyin and Kuaishou platforms' audiences, with nearly 30 percent having a monthly online spending capability exceeding 2,000 yuan.

For instance, "Fashionable Grandmothers," the online site of a group of women 65 years and older who strut a catwalk in traditional qipao dresses, has nearly 4 million followers. Within less than a year of its livestreaming, over 1,000 people have spent over 10,000 yuan on the account.

Aside from the positive benefits of companionship and entertainment for the elderly, these platforms do pose potential risks.

"While it's natural for fans to occasionally show appreciation by offering tips or leaving comments, it's essential not to let such activities become excessive or negatively impact one's financial well-being," Li said.

Previous cases, such as the one involving fraudulent videos using actor Jin Dong's images, highlight these dangers. Criminal groups may impersonate the identities of celebrities to snare victims and snaffle their money.

From May to July this year, Jing'an District police in Shanghai conducted operations to apprehend the "Fake Jin Dong" fraud group and arrested eight members. Jin expressed his gratitude.

The online realm is undergoing somewhat of a crackdown. Since July 1, Douyin has penalized 110,991 accounts and permanently revoked streaming privileges for 1,059 accounts, some with over a million followers.

The platform targets 10 categories of misbehavior, including provocations, malicious promotions and vulgar content.

"Online content can serve as a source of entertainment and connection, but it should complement, not replace, the rich tapestry of offline activities and social interactions available to individuals of all age groups," Li said.

'Harvesters of the old' are slick in targeting the emotional needs of the elderly

A livestream competition between the Scholar and Yi Xiao Qing Cheng attracted a record of more than 20 million viewers.

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