Social Media Use May Reduce Depression Risk In Elderly, Study Shows

Social media may reduce the risk of depression in seniors suffering from chronic pain, new research shows. According to a new study published in the Journals of Gerontology, Series B, online socializing may be associated with lower levels of depression in older adults living with chronic pain.

Researchers studied 3,401 participants age 67 and older. Participants didn’t live in a caregiving facility, which can cost up to $15,000 a month in Long Island, but all lived in the public community in a house or apartment.

Approximately one-third of the participants lived alone and 54% said they suffered from chronic pain within the last month.

Researchers found that 6% of participants who used social media for online socialization experienced symptoms of depression compared to the 15% of participants who didn’t use social media.

Those who live with chronic pain are at greater risk of depression because their pain makes them stay home more and interact with loved ones less.

Co-author of the study Shannon Ang says the analysis is one of the first to ever investigate into whether social media can to reduce the stress of social isolation caused by chronic pain.

“Using online social media to maintain contact with family members and friends is a good way to compensate for seniors who restrict their social activities due to pain,” said Ang. “It is not going to replace seeing people in person, but it will help supplement their reduced activities.”

According to a 2018 survey by Pew Research Center, 57% of Americans born between 1945 and 1964 use social media compared to the 23% of those born before 1945.

Ang and researchers looked at the data provided by the National Health and Aging Trends Study between 2013 and 2014. The Aging Trends Study is a yearly survey tracking the physical and cognitive health of Medicare beneficiaries.

Ang found that participants in the survey have only participated in on formal social activity and two informal social activities every month on average. Formal social activities include club meetings or religious services, and informal social activities include spending time with friends.

Only 17% of survey participants reported using social media for online socialization. Social media, Ang says, may be able to help fill in the gaps where in-person social activities are lacking.

“It’s very well-known that social support is helpful for depression and physical symptoms,” said Dr. William Pirl, an associate professor at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston.

Pirl wasn’t involved in the study but says he would hesitate to recommend social media to seniors as a socializing supplement.

“People respond differently to [social media],” said Pirl. “Some people can become more anxious hearing other peoples’ stories or about other treatments for what they’re experiencing. There’s a lot of variability of whether social media is right for you.”

For instance, some older adults may feel more anxious about their prescription painkillers because of media surrounding the opioid epidemic. Four out of five people addicted to heroin began by misusing their prescription painkillers.

In fact, past studies have shown that too much social media may actually increase your risk of depression. Your risk of depression increases based on how you use social media, whether you’re passively scrolling or comparing yourself to others.

Acts of self-care such as sending yourself flowers (63% of flowers are bought for oneself), participating in activities at home, and taking the initiative by inviting friends and family over to your home can help to reduce the risk of depression caused by reduced social interaction and too much social media use.

Pirl noted that seniors may also be able to supplement social interactions with phone calls, video conferencing, and mobile apps with similar capabilities. Phone calls and video calls give older adults the ability to interact directly with loved ones without experiencing other factors involved in social media.

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