When you live alone—or simply don’t get out as much anymore—loneliness can quickly balloon into a sense of isolation and sometimes even depression. In fact, it’s estimated that millions of older Americans suffer from depression.

However, according Michigan State University Today, researchers have found that avoiding these feelings of desolation and despair can be as close as your computer. In other words, regularly hopping on the Internet to surf Facebook or email friends and family can reduce your chances of depression by more than 30 percent. (If your kids are giving you a hard time about all your posts and comments, show them this article the next time you see them!)

“It all has to do with older persons being able to communicate, to stay in contact with their social networks, and just not feel lonely,” Shelia Cotten, a Michigan State University professor of telecommunication, information studies and media, told Michigan State University Today.

Cotten and her colleagues analyzed data from the Health and Retirement Survey, which surveys more than 22,000 older Americans every two years. This particular sample included more than 3,000 retired participants. The study included people who weren’t depressed before using the Internet, but researchers also included those who were. While some of those suffering from depression remained that way despite going online, overall both groups’ chances of depression dropped. The research also found that Internet use has a more profound and positive effect on those who live alone.

A real-life example of this effect is an 81-year-old woman who lost her longtime boyfriend several years ago. While the couple did not live together, they had breakfast together every morning and spent most of their days together, leaving the woman with a lot of alone time when he passed away. Her daughter and son-in-law gave her an iPad for Christmas. They also set up a Facebook account for her. Although she had never used a computer before, she quickly learned how to find “friends,” post, comment, and even tack on emojis. This “pad,” as she calls it, has kept her connected to friends and family, engaged her brain learning new things, and just made for a whole lot of fun! Her daughter says that it was the best gift they’ve ever bought.

All this said, Cotten isn’t recommending that posting inspirational messages and videos can substitute for real life. “If you sit in front of a computer all day, ignoring the roles you have in life and the things you need to accomplish as part of your daily life,” she notes in Michigan State University Today, “then it’s going to have a negative impact on you.”

“But if you’re using it in moderation and you’re doing things that enhance your life, then the impacts are likely to be positive in terms of health and wellbeing.”


This research is published in the Journals of Gerontology: Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences. Other co-authors are George Ford of the Phoenix Center for Advanced Legal and Economic Public Policy Studies; Sherry Ford from the University of Montevallo, Alabama; and Timothy Hale, the Center for Connected Health and Harvard Medical School.

 

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