Social Media and Older Adults
June 17, 2022 at 6:43 a.m.
The state of research on social media use and well-being in older adults is growing, but currently there is very little. So far, there is some evidence older adults who engage with social media report lower levels of loneliness. There is also evidence that older adults who use social media initiate more social contacts and feel more engaged socially. The associations of social media use and physical and cognitive health are more variable.
Social media has revolutionized how we communicate with each other. It allows users to stay in touch with friends and family and connect with different and diverse communities and cultures. However, social media has its downsides and information overload can harm overall mental well-being.
Kaylee Crockett, Ph.D., a clinical health psychologist and clinical scientist in the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s Department of Family and Community Medicine, says that although there are some risks associated with social media, there are many strategies that can be implemented to maintain good mental health.
Crockett said social media use is commonly linked with depression, anxiety, body dissatisfaction, disordered eating, insomnia, and other problems like trolling, cyberbullying and loss of privacy. With those risks in mind, Crockett says it is important to be mindful of how much time is spent on social media and other apps. Crockett says users should ask themselves two questions: How much time are they spending on social media per day, and most importantly, are you okay with that number?
“Compare this to the time you are spending on other activities that matter to you,” Crockett said. “If you don’t like what you see, start setting limits for accessing your device or scheduling blocks of time for other activities that you care about.” Research suggests that scheduling a break from social media leads to significant improvements in well-being, depression and anxiety.
“I encourage folks to build a routine that maximizes the benefits of social media and minimizes the risks. Think ahead about what you want to accomplish on social media, whether that be connecting with friends or specific communities, learning a new skill, keeping up with current events, or being entertained. Find a few accounts or groups that suit these interests and engage,” said Crockett.
Some General Guidelines on Social Media Use
Sleep experts tend to recommend shutting off devices and social media use at least an hour before bedtime. Crockett said other important boundaries pertain to how a person feels while on social media. If you experience more negative emotions, such as lonely, excluded, anxious, jealous, mistreated, angry or depressed than positive emotions, it may not be the best place for you. “Consider deleting or unfollowing accounts that cause negative feelings. Set a ground rule that, if you already feel sad or stressed, consider an alternative self-care activity rather than defaulting to social media, said Crockett.
“I think social media can be leveraged to reduce loneliness and improve health, especially when it leads to other types of social interactions. For instance, using social media as a way to reconnect and arrange meet-ups or set up time to video chat with friends and family,” said Dr. Alan Teo, who has been studying the effects of social media on overall health and is an Associate Professor, Oregon Health & Science University, Portland, Oregon.
“I believe there are opportunities for older adults to engage in social media in a way that is fulfilling and health promoting. It will take some intentional thought from each individual regarding what kinds of groups or activities are meaningful for them to be a part of online. Using social media purely for distraction from life stresses, or to search out distressing content, is likely to have more risks than benefits,” said Crockett.
Visitors on Their Phones
When your kids, grandkids, friends and others are visiting and on their phone a good part of the time, how do you deal with that tactfully? Crockett encourages setting some relevant ground rules around device and social media use when family visits. “Social media is a part of many people’s lives, so having a total ban on use when grandkids visit may create unnecessary conflict,” said Crockett.
Think about when and under what conditions it feels important for you to limit device use. For example, many families have a “no phone policy” during mealtimes or at least an hour before bedtime. Plan activities that are device-free like game nights, or outdoor family walks. When there is free time that is acceptable for device use, take interest in what your children or grandchildren are doing by asking open, curious questions. Perhaps ask to participate alongside them. Crockett said you may gain insight into their interests and communities they are engaged in online.
“When meeting up in person, I think it is a great idea to put the phones away. Time spent together is so precious. The pandemic has really taught us all that,” said Dr. Teo. “The phones don’t need to be put away forever and can come back out when your family is having their alone time. Everyone needs that too, after all. But I suggest asking for putting phones away when you are having meals together or otherwise physically together in the room, and don’t forget to be the first to model the behavior you are asking for,” said Dr. Teo.
Experts advocate deleting certain apps that are the most adverse. Set a ground rule that, if you already feel sad or stressed, do not default to social media. Consider another self-care activity instead. Self-care activities that can replace social media may include taking a walk outside, reading a book, journaling, practicing yoga or meditation, calling friends and family, inviting a friend to dinner, volunteering in the community, or joining community groups.
Crockett encourages people to ask themselves what role they want social media to play in their lives and consider steps they can take to make it happen. When deciding which accounts to follow, consider the purpose the account serves and determine why that account is important to follow. “If there is not a clear answer to these two questions, it may be time to unfollow those accounts,” said Crockett.
John Schieszer is an award-winning national journalist and radio and podcast broadcaster of The Medical Minute. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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