Social Media Use, Self-Isolation, and Depression: How Screen Time Affects Older Adults

We often hear that young people are addicted to social media, making them isolated, depressed, self-hating, radicalized, etc. However, while much research has been conducted on the diverse ways that social media influences young lives, little is known on how it affects older individuals.

Although, as adults, we are keen to point the finger at our younger generations for their faults and flaws regarding screen time, we can be just as guilty of excessive use. Many parents spend their precious alone time reading the news on their iPads, scrolling Instagram on their phones, or glued to a gripping drama on Netflix. 

Research has suggested that, although we don’t know a lot about the habits of older adults’ social media usage, older people use digital media and screens as much as if not more than their younger counterparts. For older adults who live alone, especially those whose children have left home and/or whose marriages have dissolved, screens can become a serious issue. Some evidence also suggests that spending too much time alone with screens is a factor in the emergence of depression in older adults.

It is important to keep an eye on what our kids are doing, and we also shouldn’t forget to examine our own habits. While social media and screens can be a powerful influence in our lives, providing information, entertainment, and connection in a complex world, it can also pose risks. It’s important to check in with ourselves about how and why we’re using social media and what effect it is having on our mental health. Herein, we will explore some of the nascent research on adult social media use and mental health and consider some of the ways that screen time affects grown-ups too.

Older Adults and Social Media

According to a 2021 study by Pew Research, social media use has grown significantly among adults 65 and older. While young people are early adopters of technologies, older adults are usually not far behind, especially when social media and digital devices offer such potent tools for communication, keeping track of family and friends, and providing entertainment during long, lonely days. The study also showed that, while in 2012 only 13% of individuals aged 65 and older owned a smartphone, this number increased to 46% in 2018 and to 61% in 2021. 

This growth was just as great among those aged 50-64: in 2012, only 34% of this demographic owned a smartphone, while in 2021, nearly 85% of people between fifty and sixty-four owned a smartphone.[1] Clearly, older people are getting involved with social and digital media technologies, but what does this mean for their mental health and well-being?

Screens and Well-being Among Adults

There are limited studies of well-being and social media use in older adults. A study conducted in 2022 in the United States noted that while social media can help older adults maintain social connections, the data was simply not available for making more significant conclusions as to how social media use affected their broader mental health and well-being.[2] Another study suggested that social media use among older adults may increase the likelihood of depression, particularly in those who are already at risk due to physical restrictions, other health and well-being concerns, or prolonged isolation.[3] A study in China, on the other hand, found that older adults derive benefits from social media, as it helps them feel as though they matter. [4]

However, there are indications that the way adults aged 50 and above use social media can put them at risk of becoming involved in potentially dangerous or isolating communities. One study calls this the risk of “uncritical adoption of potentially harmful information via online communities,” referring to the type of groups that promote radical or restrictive views or which use false information to promote political or social causes. While this may not have a direct effect on mental health, it can be isolating and cause fractures among existing social groups. It also puts these individuals at a higher risk of being defrauded or having their data stolen.[5]

Our ever-evolving discussions around young people and social media/digital technology demonstrate that screen time is a complex term and that social media and the internet can be powerful tools for both good and bad in terms of mental health. Although there is considerably less research on middle-aged and older individuals and screens, these lessons can also apply to them. We should certainly avoid throwing stones from glass houses; before we complain, worry, or restrict the screen time of young people, we should examine our own screen usage.

Sources:

[1] Faverio, M. (2022) Share of those 65 and older who are tech users has grown in the past decade. Pew Research Center. January 13. https://www.pewresearch.org/short-reads/2022/01/13/share-of-those-65-and-older-who-are-tech-users-has-grown-in-the-past-decade/

[2]Cotten, S. R., Schuster, A. M., & Seifert, A. (2022). Social media use and well-being among older adults. Current Opinion in Psychology, 45, 101293. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.copsyc.2021.12.005

[3] Guzman, A. A., Brecht, M.-L., Doering, L. V., Macey, P. M., & Mentes, J. C. (2023). Social Media Use and Depression in Older Adults: A Systematic Review. Research in Gerontological Nursing, 16(2), 97–104. https://doi.org/10.3928/19404921-20230220-05

[4] Fu, L., & Xie, Y. (2021). The Effects of Social Media Use on the Health of Older Adults: An Empirical Analysis Based on 2017 Chinese General Social Survey. Healthcare, 9(9), 1143. https://doi.org/10.3390/healthcare9091143

[5] Leist A. K. (2013). Social media use of older adults: a mini-review. Gerontology, 59(4), 378–384. https://doi.org/10.1159/000346818

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