Daily internet users in their 60s are more likely to be socially isolated than occasional users

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Researchers from Anglia Ruskin University carried out the study of online behaviour among adults over 60 and isolation before the coronavirus lockdown measures started


People in their sixties who use the internet every day are more likely to be lonely than those who just surf the web occasionally, a new study shows.

Researchers from Anglia Ruskin University carried out the study of online behaviour among adults over 60 using data from 4,492 adults.

The study on the link between internet use and isolation was carried out before coronavirus lockdown measures were introduced.

Authors found those who went online occasionally – from once a week to once a month – were less likely to be isolated than daily internet users.

Daily surfers recorded levels of social isolation similar to those who never went online and study authors say this could be because they lose offline contacts. 

Researchers from Anglia Ruskin University carried out the study of online behaviour among adults over 60 and isolation before the coronavirus lockdown measures started

Social isolation is an objective measure of a person’s social relationships, including the size and diversity of their social network, and the frequency of contact.

Study lead author Dr Stephanie Stockwell said the findings suggest that older adults who reported using the internet on an irregular basis may have a better balance between real world and online contacts.

‘It is possible that many in this category are simply too busy to go online every day,’ said Dr Stockwell.

‘We were surprised that daily internet users recorded similar levels of social isolation as those who never use the internet. It might be that many of these people go online to combat their social isolation.’

Among those involved in the study the tablet (47.5 per cent), smartphone (47.4 per cent) and laptop (47.0 per cent) were the most commonly mentioned devices used to access the internet and send email.

Every day users were most likely to use a smartphone compared to less-frequent users, whereas a laptop was most commonly used among less-frequent users. 

Dr Stockwell said it’s possible those going online more frequently might cause greater social isolation among some older adults as they reduce physical contacts.

They examined data from 4,492 adults in England, with an average age of 64 – overall, 19 per cent reported high levels of loneliness and 33 per cent were classified as socially isolated.

The majority of older adults taking part in the study reported using the internet every day – 69.3 per cent – with 17.4 per cent reporting never using the internet.

Of those taking part in the study 8.5 per cent go online once per week, 2.6 per cent use it once per month and 0.7 per cent go online once every three months.

Dr Stockwell said: ‘Older adults with access to the internet are likely to be using it much more often at the moment due to COVID-19 social distancing restrictions, but our findings indicate this is unlikely to improve levels of social isolation.’

Social isolation is an objective measure of a person's social relationships, including the size and diversity of their social network, and the frequency of contact

Social isolation is an objective measure of a person’s social relationships, including the size and diversity of their social network, and the frequency of contact

Searching for information, sending emails and shopping were the three most common online activities – 69 per cent reported using the internet every day.

Those going online daily were more likely to use a smartphone, while laptops were preferred by less frequent users.

Senior author Dr Lee Smith, also of Anglia Ruskin, said one of the more positive findings is that internet advertising and targeted emails could be used as a low-cost way of delivering behaviour change interventions.

These could include physical activity or dietary advice and sent to otherwise socially isolated individuals.

‘Indeed, this is a strategy that could be utilised during the current COVID-19 related social distancing,’ said Smith. 

‘One possible means of reducing social isolation and loneliness in old age is the use of modern technology, in particular the internet,’ the authors wrote.

‘Geographical distance to friends or family, mobility issues and time-consuming roles (e.g. care-giver) may impair older adults’ ability to engage socially, leaving them vulnerable to social isolation and feelings of loneliness.’ 

They found using the internet may help foster social support, keeping in contact, development of social networks and improve self-confidence among older adults. 

‘Using technology provides a low-cost and accessible means for communication that has the potential to reduce loneliness and social isolation in older adults,’ they wrote.

The findings were published in the journal Ageing and Society.



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