Social Networking Sites: What Benefits Can They Hold for Older Adults?

Written by Noah Davidson

Introduction

It is the age of social media, and there are billions of people across the globe connecting through sites such as Facebook and Twitter.  These two sites are both social networking sites (SNSs) that can be accessed via smartphones, tablets, or computers and are used to connect with family and friends.  With such a large amount of the population, especially young adults, using these SNSs, the question arises: how could using SNSs benefit the lives of older adults?

There is no doubt that older adults already use these SNSs.  In fact, 46% of older adults ages 65 and above use SNSs (Chang, Choi, Bazarova & Löckenhoff, 2015).  However, these sites might not yet meet the needs of older adults in the forms of ease of access and privacy.  Of the two sites, Facebook is better suited and has more benefits for older adults.  But, in order to better evaluate the benefits and drawbacks of Facebook and Twitter, they must first be defined and discussed in the context of what is best for older adults, and what factors make SNSs beneficial to them.

Defining Facebook and Twitter

Facebook is used for networking and staying in touch with family and friends that you would not have contact with on a regular basis.  You can share photos, videos, articles, and personalized statuses to inform people of what you are doing or to simply share your thoughts.  The app can also be used as a messaging platform if you do not have access to an individual’s contact information, and as a format for sending invitations and reminders for events.  Facebook is easy to download, or accessed on a website, and is free to all users.

Twitter, much like Facebook, is also intended to be a way of contact with friends and family, however it leans more towards the purpose of sharing news and thoughts to the public.  Posts on Twitter, known as ‘tweets’, are commonly written as jokes or news updates with an audience you may not personally know well.  These can be in the form of photos, videos, articles, and personalized messages. Twitter is also free and easy to download.

Although these two apps are both used for social networking, they communicate to others in very different tones and with different purposes.  Facebook is mainly used for staying in contact and sharing what is happening in your life, whereas Twitter is used to share information, news, and make sincere or joking comments on varying topics.  Both apps are highly social and contain content like photos, videos, articles, and personalized statuses, as well as the function to directly message individuals.

Benefits

A study conducted by Myhre, Melh, and Glisky (2016) examined the cognitive benefits to SNSs for older adults.  The researchers studied 41 older adults who were home-bound or had limited mobility and assigned them to use Facebook, an online diary website, or to not use any SNSs.  Myhre et al. (2016) measured executive functions, memory, and processing speed before and the participants where trained to use Facebook and the online diary and after they had been using them for eight weeks; these where measured with various neuropsychological tests.  Participants were also given questionnaires on their social activity.  The results revealed significant changes for the Facebook group in updating, which is a factor of executive functioning that is linked to complex working memory tasks, but not in any of the other cognitive functions (Myhre et al., 2016).

Before Myhre et al. (2016) conducted their study, they discussed previous research that suggested perceived level of social support and number of social contacts relate to executive functioning, working memory, perceptual speed, and visuospatial ability.  The use of communication technology (in this study, Twitter was used) was also correlated to improved episodic memory and processing speed and one study found that older adults that use SNSs score higher on the Mini-Mental State Exam.  However, these studies only suggest correlations to the benefits, whereas Myhre et al. (2016) searched for causation and only found it in one domain of executive functioning.  This finding confirms the view that cognitive training is often domain specific, meaning that certain cognitive tasks and trainings will increase cognitive functioning in one specific area, but not transfer to other domains.  The researchers concluded that engagement in SNSs may provide a way for older adults to increase their social support systems and stay connected, as well as challenge their cognitive function (Myhre et al., 2016).

For older adults that may be socially isolated for various reasons, SNSs hold the potential to increase their quality of life (Myhre at al., 2016).  This is because SNS offer a platform for social support and social contacts.  One limitation to this study was that the design only allowed participants to connect with other participants, and not their friends and family.  Although many of the participants created bonds with other participants and reported that they would continue their relationships outside of the study, the results might have been different if they could connect with friends and family members.  Further research is necessary to truly understand whether SNSs have the cognitive benefits previous studies have associated the use of them to.

Another study by Chang et al. (2015) looked at the size and composition of Facebook networks in line with socioemotional selectivity theory (SST) in a large nationally representative sample spanning a wide range of ages.  SST describes how as people age, their motivational priorities in social contact change and become more selective with new and maintained friendships (A. Burzynska, personal communication, April 18, 2017).  Chang et al. (2015) conducted their study via telephone surveys and collected 1,000 responses.  The study found that older adults have smaller network sizes, but have more actual friends within their total amount of Facebook friends.  This is in line with SST.  Chang et al. (2015) then associated the higher proportion of actual to total Facebook friends with lower levels of loneliness and social isolation.

Chang et al. (2015) addressed previous research that linked both negative and positive affects to internet use on loneliness, depression, and interpersonal relationships.  However, loneliness in older adulthood is associated with lower closeness to network members and SNSs provide valuable resources from their social networks such as feelings of social embeddedness and emotional support.  Previous studies also discussed how actual friends on Facebook are the only ones that provide meaningful social connections, implying that older adults would have more meaningful connections due to their higher proportions of actual Facebook friends.  The researchers concluded that the engagement on SNSs of older adults is beneficial to their well-being (Chang et al., 2015).

Drawbacks

Currently, SNSs do not cater to the needs of older adults.  Gibson et al. (2010) and Gomes, Duarte, Coelho, and Matos (2014) found that privacy is a major concern of older adults on SNSs.  Participants from the Gibson et al. (2010) study expressed their concerns of identity theft and their dislike of the requirement to provide their full details on SNSs.  The older adults also expressed their desire to share information selectively and felt that SNSs were forums to seek publicity (Gibson et al., 2010).  However, over the years SNSs have adapted their designs by creating settings that allow users to set who can see their information and making most personal information optional. But this adds to another problem.

Gomes et al. (2014) found that a lot of older adults become confused by the layout and many different options of SNSs, making them not immediately usable by older adults.  Researchers found that a large number of older adults do not understand where they can perform desired actions, creating severe difficulties with the sites.  This confusion may be due to the large amount of information presented on the sites’ interface (Gomes et al., 2014).  Therefore, SNSs hold a few limitations for older adults and should be adapted if older adults are to continue using them

Conclusion

            Despite the limitations SNSs have for older adults, they have the potential to mitigate social isolation problems and loneliness in older adulthood, as well as grant a few cognitive benefits.  SNSs can increase the well-being of older adults, challenge their cognitive function, strengthen their social support systems, and allow them to stay connected when they have limited mobility and are at risk for social isolation.

Although most research on SNSs are related to Facebook, these benefits and drawbacks can be applied to various SNSs.  However, because Twitter is less often used as a form to connect with friends and family, whereas that is Facebook’s main purpose, it could be concluded that Facebook is more beneficial to older adults than Twitter.  This conclusion could also be drawn because one key factor to the benefits of SNSs is the proportion of actual friends to total friends on the SNS, and the connections made on Twitter are often less personal and to people that are not as well known.  But, there is not enough research obtained on Twitter to confidently make this conclusion.

 References

Chang, P. F., Choi, Y. H., Bazarova, N. N., & Löckenhoff, C. E. (2015). Age differences in online social networking: Extending socioemotional selectivity theory to social network sites. Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, 59(2), 221-239. doi:10.1080/08838151.2015.1029126

Gibson, L., Moncur, W., Forbes, P., Arnott, J., Martin, C., & Bhachu, A. S. (2010). Designing social networking sites for older adults. In BCS ’10 Proceedings of the 24th BCS Interaction Specialist Group Conference (pp. 186-194). Swindon, UK: BCS Learning & Development Ltd. Retrieved from http://ewic.bcs.org/

Gomes, G., Duarte, C., Coelho, J., & Matos, E. (2014). Designing a Facebook interface for senior users. The Scientific World Journal. doi:10.1155/2014/741567

Myhre, J. W., Mehl, M. R., & Glisky, E. L. (2016). Cognitive benefits of online social networking for healthy older adults. The Journals of Gerontology Series B: Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences 00(00), 1-9. doi:10.1093/geronb/gbw025

 

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