In our ever-growing digitalized society that depends increasingly on digital means for communication, being digitally illiterate constitutes a form of social exclusion. According to the Statistics Canada (2012), over 65% of people over the age of 65-do not use or access cyberspace. While older adults may already be at-risk of social isolation by virtue of being over the age of 65, being digitally illiterate may further increase the risk of social isolation and exclusion (Beekman et a., 2000). In fact, older individuals could be considered a group at risk for a technology mediated social isolation, since they have the lowest rates of Internet use, compared to other age groups (Statistica, 2014). On the other hand, older adults who actively engage in social communication via the Internet may actually see benefits in their cognitive vitality.
There is a bountiful amount of research geared towards how an inclusive and rich social environment is vital for an older adults well-being and cognitive health, based on the Use it or lose it hypothesis (Hultsch, Hertzog, Small, & Dixon, 1999) and the Cognitive-Enrichment theory (Hertzog et al., 2008). Both theories build upon the assumption that social interaction would function as cognitive training in a naturalistic environment. This is suggested, seeing how social interaction combats social isolation, which in hand reduces the likelihood of depression, loneliness and cognitive decline (Christelis & Dobresku, 2012).
Why should we focus on stimulating an on-line social network?
In Hatzifilalithis, Chrysochoou, Pavlidis & Vivas (under review in Hellenic Psychological Society Journal, 2016) looking at the contribution of older adults’ on-line social networking levels to cognitive vitality. We found a positive relationship between on-line social networking and executive functioning, which might actually reflect the influence of Internet/computer use, rather than an effect of social networking and support. This can also be seen in situations where people have used Internet groups as a support system for depression in older age (Houston, Cooper, & Ford, 2002). However, this is simply one avenue that could attribute to the multiple benefits the Internet has on the elderly population.
Having led an intergenerational program based on teaching digital literacy (The Knowledge Volunteers, 50+Hellas), I find that once silver surfers are “plugged in”, it becomes a vital part of their daily activities. It allows them to interact with their environment in a new and easier way. It leads to a more independent lifestyle in day-to-day functions such as paying bills, booking a trip or talking with family members over Skype. It also permits for an up-to-date view regarding their surroundings, even if it is a viral app, or a funny tweet, or a Facebook event. As such, it seems to encourage an inclusive viewpoint with the world, and more specifically younger people.
However, some older adults are still skeptical about the application and use of technology, especially the Internet. When asked in a poll whether or not they are missing out on information by not accessing the Internet, only 25 % agreed, while others reportedly don’t believe they are at any disadvantage by not accessing the cyberspace (Pew Research Center, 2014). Though, I should note that this could also be attributed to socio-economic inequalities; older adults 65+ might not have the ability to purchase or maintain equipment needed to execute Internet and technology use (Evandrou, 2000). My research and experience of working with older people who are learning about technology leads me to believe that there is still a long way to go, not only from a research vantage point, but also from a societal perspective. Considering such beliefs and practices from the perspective of ‘ageism’, underscores the need to challenge the social stigma that exists in relation to older people and their use of the Internet and technology. Thus, allowing for a more inclusive and welcoming cyber-environment for older people, may allow for a detachment from ideas of older people as ‘silver surfers’, and in hand, remove the hesitation that accompanies Internet or technology.
Although my perspective can certainly be challenged, the inclusion of older adults in today’s technologically driven society, by actively participating in this global phenomenon, may actually benefit their cognitive vitality. More so, having older adults “plugged in”, establishes first steps toward the elimination of a stigma that should no longer be present in contemporary society. More importantly, the use of the Internet would contribute to the bridging of the generational gap with the younger population, allowing for an intergenerational structure in todays generationally isolating culture.
Beekman, A. T., de Beurs, E., van Balkom, A. J., Deeg, D. J., van Dyck, R., & van Tilburg, W. (2000). Anxiety and depression in later life: co-occurrence and communality of risk factors. American journal of psychiatry, 157(1), 89-95
Christelis, D., & Dobrescu, L. I. (2012). The Impact of Social Activities on Cognitive Ageing: Evidence from Eleven European Countries. Available at SSRN 2141386
Evandrou, M. (2000). Social inequalities in later life: the socio-economic position of older people from ethnic minority groups in Britain. POPULATION TRENDS-LONDON-, 11-18.
Hatzifilalithis, S., Chrysochoou, E., Pavlidis, G., & Vivas, A. B. (In review) On-line social networking and cognitive performance in older adults: A Greek-Canadian study , Psychology Department, The University of Sheffield International Faculty, City College, Greece.
Hertzog, C., Kramer, A. F., Wilson, R. S., & Lindenberger, U. (2008). Enrichment effects on adult cognitive development can the functional capacity of older adults be preserved and enhanced?. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 9(1), 1-65.
Houston, T. K., Cooper, L. A., & Ford, D. E. (2002). Internet support groups for depression: a 1-year prospective cohort study. American Journal of Psychiatry, 159(12), 2062-2068.
Hultsch, D. F., Hertzog, C., Small, B. J., & Dixon, R. A. (1999). Use it or lose it: engaged lifestyle as a buffer of cognitive decline in aging?. Psychology and aging, 14(2), 245-263.
Pew Research Center, Aaron Smith, (2014). Older Adults and Technology use. Retrieved from http://www.pewinternet.org/2014/04/03/older-adults-and-technology-use/
Statistica (2014, December). Distribution of Internet users worldwide as of June 2014, by age group. Available at http://www.statista.com/statistics/272365/age-distribution-of-internet-users-worldwide/
Sum, S., Mathews, R. M., Pourghasem, M., & Hughes, I. (2009). Internet use as a predictor of sense of community in older people. CyberPsychology & Behavior, 12(2), 235-239.
She is a bright star in the night sky! I wish her the best, and I am sure we are going to benefit a lot from her work.