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Social media could have health benefits for older people

Older adults think the benefits of social media greatly outweigh the costs and challenges of the tech.

Old people walking. Picture: Freeimages.com

Older adults enjoy using Facebook, email, instant messaging, and other forms of social media-and doing so may even reduce loneliness and improve health.

"Older adults think the benefits of social technology greatly outweigh the costs and challenges of technology," says William Chopik, assistant professor of psychology at Michigan State University. "And the use of this technology could benefit their mental and physical health over time."

For a new study in the journal Cyberpsychology, Behavior and Social Networking, researchers looked at data from 591 participants in the nationally representative Health and Retirement Study to examine the benefits of using technology for social connection among older adults (participants' average age was about 68). Social technology included email; social networks such as Facebook and Twitter; online video or phone calls, such as Skype; online chatting or instant messaging; and smartphones.

Previous research on technology use across the life span has focused on the digital divide-or the disparities between younger and older adults-painting a rather bleak picture of seniors' ability and motivation to adapt to a changing technological landscape.

But the new findings challenge this interpretation. More than 95 percent of participants said they were either "somewhat" or "very" satisfied with technology, while 72 percent said they were not opposed to learning new technologies.

"Despite the attention that the digital divide has garnered in recent years, a large proportion of older adults use technology to maintain their social networks and make their lives easier," Chopik says. "In fact, there may be portions of the older population that use technology as often as younger adults."

Further, social technology use predicted lower levels of loneliness, which in turn predicted better mental and physical health. Participants who used social technology more generally were more satisfied with life and had fewer depressive symptoms and chronic conditions such as high blood pressure and diabetes.

"Each of the links between social technology use and physical and psychological health was mediated by reduced loneliness," Chopik says. "As we know, close relationships with other people are a large determinant of physical health and well-being, and social technology has the potential to cultivate successful relationships among older adults."

Written: Andy Henion: Postdoctoral Researcher, Michigan State University

This piece was first published by the World Economic Forum.

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