• Robb G. Best

Fighting Loneliness with "Likes"

Studies show that senior citizens are more connected to the web than ever before. According to the Pew Research Group, smartphone ownership among those 65 and older has increased by 24 percentage points since just 2013, and more than a third of this group use social media. And that’s potentially a good thing, says a new study from the University of Michigan.

By now, we’re all familiar with the complaints against social media. It shortens attention spans. It decreases face-to-face social skills. We don’t notice the world around us when all we do is stare at our phones all day. We are becoming a nation of screen-obsessed zombies.

However, there’s a flip side to that Facebook habit.

As Western society has moved away from a family model in which elders continue living with their offspring, isolation has increasingly become standard for those living in their golden years. Friends and spouses die, seniors relocate to nursing homes or other care facilities far from their original communities, and chronic pain renders in-person socializing harder than ever. The U of M study concerns that latter issue, drawing a link between loneliness, pain, and depression.

In a way, it’s a vicious cycle. A person in severe physical discomfort will avoid social activities—leaving them with nothing to do but sit alone, contemplating their own pain. Without the distraction of socializing, the pain becomes harder to ignore. These two factors double over on themselves until the quality of life is so low that depression seems almost inevitable. And one side effect of depression? Decreased tolerance for pain.

However, when study author Shannon Ang at the U-M Department of Sociology and Institute for Social Research and Tuo-Yu Chen of Nanyang Technological University in Singapore examined a sample of 3,400 Medicare recipients, they found something interesting. Those who regularly used social media reported a lower rate of depression. It’s not that they experienced less pain, per se—but they did suffer less loneliness.

It seems that, while face-to-face is still the best way to socialize, in circumstances where that is difficult, social media can fill an important void. In-person conversation is good for the brain, showing real, measurable cognitive benefits, but the researchers assert that maintaining a digital connection may even offer some form of those positive effects as well.

It’s something to keep an eye on, as each increasingly plugged-in generation begins their own aging process. Maybe someday Instagram and Twitter will be the domain of the elderly only, as seniors flock to “like” each other’s newest photos of grandkids and lament the passing of those good old days.

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