New findings from the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships suggest that social media may be a positive social resource for socially isolated older adults. A study among adults over 65 found that greater use of social media was associated with more positive mood among those with a smaller (but not larger) social network.
More and more older adults are turning to social media to connect with others. And yet little is known about how this unique form of social connection might impact the day-to-day lives of older people.
“When the pandemic lockdown forced everyone to stay home and rely on the internet for social connections and information sharing, I immediately became concerned with the ‘digital divide’ that greatly impacts the older adult population,” said study author Yijung K. Kim, a postdoctoral researcher at The University of Texas at Austin.
“Compared to the effects of daily social media use on adolescents and young adults, there was relatively little research about how older adults were using social media on a daily basis and what that could mean for their emotional well-being. To better understand older adults’ social media use, it was also important to go beyond comparing social media users to non-social media users, and to compare an individual with more social media use on a given day to him or herself on different days.”
To explore the impact of social media use in later life, Kim and and her colleague Karen L. Fingerman investigated data from a wider study called the Daily Experiences and Well-Being Study. This study used Ecological Momentary Assessment (EMA), a method of data collection involving repeated assessments over time in a person’s natural environment.
The study involved 313 older adults from Austin, Texas with an average age of 74. The participants completed short surveys about six times a day over 5-6 days, with about three hours in between each survey. For every survey, participants rated their mood, reported whether they had used social media in the past three hours, and reported whether they had any social encounters in the past three hours. These daily assessments allowed researchers to analyze how a person’s daily social media use was associated with their mood that day and with their level of in-person socialization that day.
As expected, a greater number of in-person social encounters was associated with a better mood that day. Unexpectedly, more time on the phone was associated with worse mood that day.
Participants’ use of social media was not associated with their mood that day. However, participants did report better mood on days when they used more social media and also had more in-person social encounters. This may suggest that daily social media use provided complementary benefits, by “enriching in-person encounters that already exist in older adults’ daily lives.”
Further analysis revealed additional insight into how social media use might complement in-person encounters. The authors re-examined the results while taking into account the types of social contacts people had. It was found that older adults reported less negative mood on days when they used more social media and had more social encounters with “peripheral” ties and more positive mood on days when they used more social media and had more telephone calls with “peripheral” ties. “Daily social media use complemented individuals’ contact with their peripheral ties—encounters with those who were not listed as the respondent’s 10 closest social ties—throughout the day,” Kim and Fingerman say.
The findings also suggested that social media may be most beneficial for older adults with fewer social contacts. Participants with smaller social networks saw greater mood on days with more social media use, but not participants with larger social networks. This may indicate that social media was improving mood by compensating for a smaller than average social network.
“Our findings suggest that social media use could have a positive effect on older adults’ daily mood, but in certain contexts of their offline social relationships,” Kim told PsyPost. “We found that more daily social media use was associated with more positive mood for those older adults with a smaller social network. We also found that more social media use was associated with less negative mood on days not spent alone. These findings suggest that the key benefits of social media use in later life may lie in enriching in-person encounters that already exist in older adults’ daily lives.”
The authors note several limitations to their study, including that the data did not capture differences in the type of social media use (i.e., active vs. passive) nor in the quality of social encounters.
“One thing we are unable to know is what type of social media older adults used and what they actually did,” Kim explained. “For example, we speculate that using social networking sites to view photos of the day-to-day development of grandchildren could have acted as a positive conversation starter, but future research should investigate the mechanism by which older adults’ online and offline social activities influence their well-being. We also note that our sample had more years of education than the average adults over age 65. We thus cannot generalize our findings to a general older population whose sociodemographic characteristics are strong determinants of their technology use.”
Nonetheless, the findings suggest that further study is warranted to explore how socially isolated older adults might use social media to build and maintain a sense of connection with others.
“Unequal access to and utilization of digital communication technologies among the older adult population remains a persistent issue,” Kim said. “We expect that there was a pandemic-related growth in the number of older adults who use social media and other types of computer-mediated communication. Nonetheless, more attention should be paid to addressing the digital divide related to aging, as well as promoting older adults’ daily interactions with both online and offline social ties.”
The study, “Daily social media use, social ties, and emotional well-being in later life”, was authored by Yijung K. Kim and Karen L. Fingerman.