The Internet, Depression, and Older Americans


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Regular use of the internet gives a boost to the mental health of older Americans. Image by Ladyheart.

Regular use of the Internet gives a boost to the mental health of older Americans. Image by Ladyheart.

We have all heard about the dangers of Internet use to mental health: addiction, cyber-bullying, lack of socialization, over-exposure to pornography, and sexual predators. But what about the positives?

Can spending time on the Internet actually benefit one’s mental health? According to a new study, surfing the net has a measurable effect on one sector of the population: older Americans.

Study of Older Americans

University of Michigan researchers studied data collected by the Health and Retirement Survey for this study. The National Institute on Aging and the Social Security Administration sponsors this survey, which they issue biyearly to more than 26,000 Americans who are older than 50.

Shelia Cotten and her colleagues reviewed the responses of more than 3000 people over a period of six years. They discovered clear positive mental health results, estimating a 30% reduction in the chances of developing depression in older Americans who use the Internet.

The researchers surmise that the  Internet acts as a virtual lifeline for older Americans who might otherwise be socially isolated. Instead of gradually withdrawing from society, they use the Internet as a tool to remain in contact with their social networks and maintain regular communication with friends and family.

These findings are important, because currently, around a quarter of adults aged 65 and older have been diagnosed with some type of mental health problem. Given that social ties are strongly associated with well-being, maintaining social interaction is key to preventing depression. According to the Center for Disease Control, around 12% of adults who are 65 or older say that they do not receive the social and emotional support that they need.

Narrowing Technology Divide

The results of the study are likely related to increased Internet use among older Americans. Elderly Americans are gradually bridging the technology gap, as revealed by two Pew Research reports. In April 2012, Pew reported that over 50% of Americans over age 65 used the Internet. By April 2014, that statistic had risen, with more than 59% of senior citizens saying that they go online.

Pew noted that younger, more affluent and more educated seniors are far more likely to have Internet access than older seniors. Even today, 41% of Americans who are older than 65 do not use the Internet at all. Additionally, Internet use plunges at around age 75. That might be due to physical handicaps or to difficulty learning new technology.

Older Americans are devoted web users. 71% of those who go online say they use the Internet every day or almost every day. As for their younger counterparts, the Internet becomes an essential part of their lives.

Internet Gets a Bad Rap

The good news about Internet use and mental health is surprising, given the doomsday findings of some other studies.  An often-quoted 2010 study by Lawrence Lam and Zi-Wen Peng, published in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, found an alarming link between addictive Internet use and depression.

Lam and Peng collected data from 1,041 teens in China who were aged 13 to 18. They assessed the teens for pathological use, depression and anxiety at the beginning and end of a 9-month period. At the end of the 9 months, they saw that teens with pathological Internet had more than double the risk of developing depression than teens with non-pathological use.

Furthermore, a 2012 study led by Joseph Mazer of Texas Christian University found that people who were more likely to disclose personal information on the Internet, and who were more likely to use the Internet for social connection, were more likely to use the Internet compulsively. That can lead to depression, because when people cannot control the amount of time they spend online, they are more likely to feel lonely, not speak to people in person, and hence become depressed.

Different Strokes for Different Folks

Why does the Internet seem to help some people remain psychologically whole, while other Internet users fall into the deep morass of isolation and depression? The answer probably lies in their level of usage. Those who use the Internet pathologically, meaning they are addicted, are prone to depression. Their marathon sessions on the Internet preclude many activities of daily living that would prevent the onset of depression, such as regular sleep patterns, nutritious diets, and face-to-face interactions with actual people.

It’s likely that the older Americans who benefit from the social aspects of Internet use are limiting their time on the computer in a healthy manner.

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