Computer mediated social support reduces isolation

Social media and online games are helping isoltated older people connect and build relationships, a study has found.

Whether it’s interacting on Facebook, sending an email to a friend, chatting to family via FaceTime or even playing World of Warcraft, digital communication is helping reduce loneliness and isolation among old people, a report has found.

Belinda Fuss, a PhD student the University  of Adelaide, first became interested in the field when her 90-year-old grandmother elected to remain in rural SA after drought forced her family to move to the city.

“I became interested in ways we could help her connect with us and friends,” Ms Fuss told Community Care Review.

Belinda Fuss

To investigate, Ms Fuss conducted a review of existing research into computer mediated social support, or communication via computer involving a person at either end of the computer.

Her review, pulished in the current Australasian  Journal on Ageing involved, data from 17 studies from Australia, China, Canada, US and Netherlands and 17,640 community dwelling older adults.

If found that frequent computer mediated communication was associated with higher levels of social support and connectedness, and could even enhance social wellbeing and reduce loneliness for some older people.

In particular, forms of digital communication including email, social media and online games could bolster relationships with extended family and friends, particularly for people with geographical or functional difficulties.

“In general it looks like people who have access to digital communication and have someone who’s on both sides of the computer, and have the direct capability to do it, are better off and more socially connected than people who don’t have that resource,” she said.

“And if they have that resource, and do it with a higher frequency, those relationships seem to be stronger.”

Ms Fuss says it is still unclear whether older people who benefit from computer mediated communication do so because they have a wider network of friends to begin with, with some studies suggesting that people use digital communication to maintain existing relationships rather than make new friends.

Email a popular form of communication

The most popular form of computer mediated communication is email, she says.

“It’s a lot like letter writing,” Ms Fuss says. “They can take their time in explaining what they want to say and it can be day night, whenever they want to write it, they can send it when they want to, as opposed to something like SMS where the communication is much more immediate.

“They also really like FaceTime, especially to talk to family overseas.”

Other popular forms are online games, like Words with Friends, and Facebook. Older people are also using Snapchat, Instagram and even massive online multi-player games.

“They’re playing World of Warcraft,” says Ms Fuss, who likens the role-playing platform to social games like Bingo, except with people from all over the world.

Barriers to wider take-up of computer mediated communication exist for older people, however, including structural issues like internet access and attitudinal barriers such as the belief that ‘never grew up with it’ or ‘I’m not tech savvy’.

Ms Fuss says this highlights the need to make sure connected devices are available and that older people are given the confidence and technical support to help them get the most out of it.

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1 thought on “Computer mediated social support reduces isolation

  1. I wish this myth of the elderly not taking up technology would stop. The government has numerous programs across australia that are free and accessible such as Tech Savy Seniors in most libraries, Be Connected and many at local community centres. The rhetoric says there are 2.5 million seniors over the age of 65 who do not access the internet. We we are network partners of Be Connected would like to know where they are because all the training we offer is free, and yet we have few who take it up. October 14 is the week of Get On Line and across Australia we are all running free workshops and events yet we are struggling to get people to come. I work with people in their 80s and 90s, 114 of them, all of them have phones and either ipads or tablets. When you out just look at how many older people are sitting at the table not talking to each other because they are using technology.

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