The study, published in Educational Gerontology, suggests toddlers lacking contact with older people may attach negative cultural images -- such as being absent-minded or hard-of-hearing -- to the elderly.
"We've been able to show really early on that kids, when they're just starting to talk, have established beliefs about older people," Sheree Kwong See of the University of Alberta in Edmonton says in a statement. "We're seeing what we could call ageism by about age three."
Kwong See and Elena Nicoladis measured the reactions of young children who had been quizzed on vocabulary words by either an older or younger adult and found children with less exposure to older adults had a stronger language bias against the older person in the experiment than those who had more exposure to older people.
The researchers say actual contact with older people can counteract negative cultural images of aging from cartoons, story books and watching how other people interact with seniors.
Kwong See cautions having negative stereotypes so young could adversely affect these children as they become older. Stereotypes, she says, can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
"They will become their stereotypes as they grow older," Kwong See says.