Perspective from Louise C. Hawkley, PhD
Source/Disclosures
Disclosures: The authors report no relevant financial disclosures.
May 26, 2020
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Older-aged frequent internet users at greater risk for social isolation, not loneliness

Perspective from Louise C. Hawkley, PhD
Source/Disclosures
Disclosures: The authors report no relevant financial disclosures.
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Stephanie Stockwell

Frequent internet use appeared associated with increased risk for social isolation among older adults, according to study results published in Ageing & Society.

“Social isolation and loneliness are associated with adverse health outcomes among older adults in the academic literature,” Stephanie Stockwell, PhD student at Anglia Ruskin University’s Positive Ageing Research Institute in the U.K., told Healio Psychiatry. “Although there are studies available that investigate interventions using technology to combat social isolation and loneliness in older adults, there was limited up-to-date information investigating associations between older adults’ current, ‘organic’ use of technology in relation to their loneliness and social isolation.”

To address this research gap, Stockwell and colleagues sought to explore associations between social isolation/loneliness and internet/email use among a large sample of older English adults. The investigators analyzed data of 4,492 men and women aged 50 years or older who participated in the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing Wave 8. They used binomial logistic regression to evaluate relevant cross-sectional associations.

Results showed that older adults reported internet/email use as follows:

  • 69.3% every day;
  • 8.5% once a week;
  • 2.6% once a month;
  • 0.7% once every 3 months;
  • 1.5% less than every 3 months; and
  • 17.4% never.

Stockwell and colleagues observed no significant association between loneliness and internet/email use; however, they found nonlinear associations for social isolation. Those who used the internet/email either once a week (OR = 0.6; 95% CI, 0.49-0.72) or once a month (OR = 0.6; 95% CI, 0.45-0.8) were significantly less likely to report social isolation compared with every-day users, whereas those who used the internet/email less than once every 3 months (OR = 2.87; 95% CI, 1.28-6.4) were significantly more likely to be socially isolated compared with every-day users. Those who used the internet/email once every 3 months and those who never used exhibited no difference in social isolation compared with every-day users. The investigators found weak associations between different online activities and loneliness but strong associations with social isolation.

“A large proportion of older adults are engaging with technology, at least once a week if not every day,” Stockwell told Healio Psychiatry. “Therefore, technology could be a useful, additional tool to deliver behavioral interventions for health in older adults at minimal cost to the individual, particularly in harder-to-reach populations such as those who are socially isolated. It is important, however, that technology does not replace all face-to-face contact older adults have, as this may impact the quality of relationships and, thus, feelings of loneliness in older adults. There is also potential that those who are online most frequently and for long durations risk isolating themselves. Therefore, educating older people about balance between their online and offline lives is important.” – by Joe Gramigna

Disclosures: The authors report no relevant financial disclosures.