Seniors and Social Media: The Good and the Bad

Senior woman looking at laptop computer

Mitzi always enjoyed the newsy letters, cards and photos that filled her mailbox as the holidays approached. But last year, only a handful arrived! Mitzi sighed, "Don't people send holiday cards anymore?" "Oh, Mom," said her daughter. "No one writes a Christmas letter now — everyone already knows what's happening from Facebook!" So Mitzi created a Facebook account and quickly found an ongoing source of news from her family members and friends.

Mitzi is not alone. "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," reported Michigan State University researcher William Chopik. "In fact, there may be portions of the older population that use technology as often as younger adults."

Seniors are using Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other social media sites, but in this article, we will primarily focus on Facebook, because that's the platform of choice for most senior users.

The benefits of social media

Mental stimulation and a window to the world. Some research has found seniors who use social media increase their working memory and speed of information processing. A steady stream of information from social media can be accessed right in the home — a great benefit for older adults who have trouble getting out and about due to mobility challenges or sensory loss. (Learn about Facebook accessibility features here.)

Social opportunities. Experts acknowledge that nothing takes the place of in-person socialization, but a number of studies show online socializing provides a genuine sense of connection. "Certain things you do on Facebook can give you gratification, like fulfilling the needs for activity, having interactions with others, having a greater sense of agency, and building community," noted Penn State University communications professor S. Shyam Sundar. "This is important, especially for older adults who might be aging in place, because they have mobility constraints that limit their ability to socialize."

Enhancing family connections. Most seniors who create a Facebook account do so to keep up with family. Those who don't can miss out and feel excluded, because families today often stay in regular communication through social media. University of Notre Dame experts say that all those photos of babies, birthdays and trips in your news feed serve to "revive dormant connections," keeping relationships top of mind. Some seniors just lurk, to see what's up with the grandkids — but how gratifying for Grandpa to put up a photo of his fishing trip and garner lots of likes!

Making new friends and keeping the old. Not so long ago, if we lost touch with a childhood friend or someone we used to work with, that would be the end of that. Today, seniors are amazed that Facebook reconnects them with people they haven't seen in years. It also lets us meet new people with whom we have a lot in common. With 2.5 billion people using the platform, we're sure to find a group devoted to our particular interests — say, quilting, cooking with mushrooms, or the history of our town. Social media allow us to interact with people whose paths would never have crossed ours in the past. This includes valuable intergenerational connections and easier participation by people with disabilities.

Online support groups. Seniors who are dealing with health challenges benefit tremendously by talking with others in the same situation. Family caregivers, too, can really use the ear of someone who's "been there, done that." There are in-person support groups, but today more people are meeting those needs in Facebook groups, where they can get advice and find a virtual hug. For example, a recent University of Michigan study found that seniors living with chronic pain who took part in an online support group experienced a decrease in depression. Said researcher Shannon Ang, "This is critical because the onset of pain can often lead to a downward spiral of social isolation and depression, resulting in adverse outcomes for the health of older adults." The overriding message of these groups: "You are not alone."

Social media pitfalls to avoid

Some of the seeming advantages of being on Facebook can come with less-than-advantageous aspects:

The temptation to compare. Social media can provide a mood boost, yet spending too much time perusing the posts of others also could increase feelings of depression. University of Pennsylvania researchers explained, "Some of the existing literature on social media suggests there's an enormous amount of social comparison that happens. When you look at other people's lives … it's easy to conclude that everyone else's life is cooler or better than yours." Their study focused on college undergraduates, but it’s certainly likely that older adults, too, could suffer battered self-esteem by comparing themselves to others. Folks of every age should remember that people tend to put their best foot forward on Facebook. Hawaiian vacation selfie? Check! Bad hair day? Not so much.

Emotional contagion and fake news. It happens fairly often: A senior joins a Facebook group — anything from their 60th high school reunion to the aforementioned quilters club — and pretty soon a flame war erupts over politics. The memes and outraged news stories fly and older adults, not born into the digital age, may be less aware that many are fabricated. Insult battles even break out on neighborhood Facebook groups when someone isn't bringing their garbage can in fast enough! Trolls join the fray, igniting a comments war that can stir up anger and interpersonal bitterness that is anything but emotionally beneficial. Said Harvard Medical School's Dr. Srini Pillay, "Interact with a disgruntled group online, and you are likely to feel disgruntled, as well." Who needs the stress?

A new breeding ground for fraud. Scammers have made their way onto social media sites, selling worthless products and impersonating the IRS or Social Security (see the infographic in this issue of Caring Right at Home to learn more about that). The well-known "grandparent scam" got a new boost once crooks realized they could glean personal information from a family member's Facebook page to impersonate them. Con artists create fake accounts to "befriend" and take advantage of seniors. Unscrupulous contractors peddle their wares on neighborhood groups. Help loved ones select the right privacy settings, and make online safety and security a topic of conversation.

Ignoring IRL (in real life) relationships. It's possible to fixate so much on social media connections that they overshadow in-person friend and family interactions. Someone coined the term "phubbing" — short for "phone snubbing" — to describe the familiar sight of people sitting together but ignoring each other as they all check their social media accounts. Fortunately, most studies show that using social media can enhance IRL interactions. And here's one more reminder: Research shows we enjoy experiences more if we live in the moment, rather than focusing on posting a selfie.

Technical frustrations. "Why is Facebook doing this? I posted a photo, but it's not showing up! And how come my private messaging looks different today?" As with any computer-based activity, there will be annoyances and glitches. If you've helped an older relative create a Facebook account, you will probably need to provide regular tech support. But your role as their "help desk" can prevent them from being left out of today's digital world.

Alternatives to social media

Woman helps senior woman with computer

Lack of a technology background, health challenges or just lack of interest can make social media a poor fit for some older adults. But there might be alternative technologies that can still be of benefit, and you can be of great service by making it possible. In a 2018 study from Oregon Health & Science University on seniors and communication technologies, researcher Dr. Alan Teo said, "Video chat came out as the undisputed champion. Older adults who used video chat technology such as Skype had a significantly lower risk of depression." You also could offer to be Mom's Facebook ambassador. With the other person's permission, copy photos and posts, and email them to Mom or print them out for her, or just call with a summary of the "news" — an analog labor of love!

Right at Home, Inc. is a national organization dedicated to improving the quality of life for those we serve. We fulfill that mission through a dedicated network of locally owned providers of in home care services.