The internet is arguably the most important invention in recent history. To recognize its importance, World Internet Day is celebrated each year on 29 October, the date on which the first electronic message was transferred from one computer to another in 1969. At that time, a UCLA student programmer named Charley Kline was working under the supervision of his professor Leonard Klinerock, and transferred a message from a computer housed at UCLA to one at Stanford. The ARAPNET (Advanced Research Projects Agency Network), as it was called, provided the foundation for the contemporary internet.
From that first electronic exchange between Kline and message recipient Bill Duvall, the number of people using the internet has exploded from 738 million in 2000 to an estimated 3.2 billion worldwide in 2015, according to data from the International Telecommunication Union. In the US, young people went online earlier than older people, but today an estimated 60% of adults ages 65+ use the internet (compared to 86% of all Americans). The internet is an important source of information and social engagement for older adults, yet the most vulnerable older adults are least likely to go online. In celebration of this year’s World Internet Day, we have created a reading list of articles from Gerontological Society of America journals that reveal the ways that the internet has enriched the lives of older adults in the United States.
Has the Digital Health Divide Widened? Trends of Health-Related Internet Use Among Older Adults From 2003 to 2011, by Y. Alicia Hong and Jimmyoung Cho in Journal of Gerontology: Social Sciences
This study explores how older adults use the internet to engage in four health-related behaviors: seeking health information, buying medications, connecting with people who have similar health problems, and communicating with doctors. They use data from the 2003, 2005, and 2011–2012 Health Information National Trends Survey (HINTS). Health-related internet use (HRIU) among older adults increased 2003 to 2011, with the steepest increases in seeking health information and communicating with doctors online. By 2011, 80% of internet users ages 55+ sought health information online, 22% communicated with doctors, 21% bought medicine, and 3% communicated with others who shared their health concerns. These rates declined with age, and were higher among whites than ethnic minorities, higher income versus lower income older adults, and high school graduates versus dropouts, although disparities declined between 2003-11. The authors call for more senior-friendly online resources to bridge the digital health divide for vulnerable older adults.
Internet Use and Depression Among Retired Older Adults in the United States: A Longitudinal Analysis, by Shelia R. Cotton, George Ford, Sherry Ford and Timothy M. Hale in Journal of Gerontology: Social Sciences.
The research team tracks whether Internet use among retired older adults in the United States is linked to changes in depressive symptoms, and whether this linkage is accounted for by reductions in older adults’ loneliness. They examined four waves of data (2002-08) from the Health and Retirement Survey. Internet use reduced older adults’ risk of depression by roughly one-third, and part of this reduction likely reflected the fact that internet use reduced feelings of loneliness. Internet use was particularly protective for older adults who lived alone. The authors conclude that encouraging older adults to use the Internet may help decrease isolation and depression.
Information and Communication Technology Use Is Related to Higher Well-Being Among the Oldest-Old, by Tamara Sims, Andrew E. Reed, and Dawn C. Carr in Journal of Gerontology: Psychological Sciences
This study explores whether using the internet for socially meaningful versus informational goals had different effects on the well-being of 445 older adults ages 80+. They considered multiple dimensions of well-being, including life satisfaction, loneliness, goal attainment, subjective health, and functional limitations. The older adults used technology more to connect with friends and family than to learn information. On closer inspection, the researchers found that social motivations for using the internet were linked with better psychological health, whereas informational motivations were linked with better physical health. The results suggest that it’s never too late to use the internet, as adults even in their 80s and 90s benefit from its use.
Digital Dating: Online Profile Content of Older and Younger Adults, by Eden M. Davis and Karen L. Fingerman in Journal of Gerontology: Psychological Sciences.
Older adults are among the most rapidly growing group of online daters. But how do they present themselves online? Do their presentations differ from younger adults? The researchers examined 4,000 dating profiles from two popular websites. They examined the ads of men and women ages 18 to 95, and detected age differences in self-presentation that reflected the realities of older versus younger adults lives. Younger adults are more likely to enhance the “self” when seeking romantic partnerships, referring to “I” and their personal and work achievements. Older adults are more positive in their profiles and focus more on health, connectedness, and relationships to others, referring to “we.”
Technology Access and Use, and Their Associations With Social Engagement Among Older Adults: Do Women and Men Differ? by Jeehoon Kim, Hee Yun Lee, M. Candace Christensen, and Joseph R. Merighi in Journal of Gerontology: Social Sciences.
Do older men and women use technology in the same ways? This study uses data from the 2011 National Health and Aging Trends Study to examine whether the use of email and the internet by men and women affects the frequency with which they visit friends and relatives (informal social participation) and volunteer or engage in community activities (formal social participation). The researchers found that men are more likely to use technology for all different purposes, including communication, completing personal tasks, and handling health matters. However, women’s technology use was associated with increased levels of all forms of social engagement, yet just one form of men’s engagement: going out for enjoyment. The authors conclude that technology use may help to reduce older adults’ social isolation and improve their overall psychosocial well-being.
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