The combination of parents or grandparents and Facebook is easy fodder for jokes and has been known to lead to awkward online interactions. But according to new research led by the University of Exeter, older people garner some important benefits from exposure to online social media — a group of seniors introduced to this technology had “heightened feelings of self-competence, engaged more in social activity, had a stronger sense of personal identity and showed improved cognitive capacity” as compared to a control group, explains the study’s press release. “These factors indirectly led to overall better mental health and well-being.”
For the study, part of an EU project on aging and technology called Ages 2.0, the authors recruited 76 adults between 60 and 95 years of age who were receiving support from an elder-care service provider (some of whom lived in nursing homes). Half were assigned to a control group that got their usual care, while the other half had “an ‘Easy PC package’ [installed] consisting of a touch screen computer and keyboard, and a broadband internet connection. They were able to keep the computer for 12 months, including a three-month training period.”
At the end of the study period, those who’d received the training scored better on a variety of measures, and the researchers have a pretty simple explanation for why: Programs like Skype and Facebook can, in the right contexts, fight against the decrease in social interaction that some people face as they age. “People who are socially isolated or who experience loneliness are more vulnerable to disease and decline,” said Thomas Morton of the University of Exeter, the study’s lead author, in the press release. “For these reasons finding ways to support people’s social connections is a really important goal.”
So while it might lead to a strange wall post or two, if you see older relatives over the holidays who don’t have much experience with this stuff, you’ll be doing them a good deed if you introduce them to social-networking services that could help keep them connected to others.