Social networks and online discussion forums can be used to engage in social contact with people everywhere, regardless of their age or state of health. The opportunity to maintain social relationships is especially important for the elderly and when done extensively is one of the key elements of aging well. However, many older adults in Europe are not spending their time online, let alone using social networks. For example, in the UK only 33% of adults aged 75 years and over had ever used the Internet. In the same country, Ofcom (Independent regulator and competition authority for the UK communications industries) estimates that while 92% of online 16-24 year olds have created a profile on a social networking site, only 25% of online adults over 65 have done the same.
So why don’t the elderly engage in social networks? It is due only to the attitudes and perceptions that they have about these networks (e.g. “I am too old” and “It is too complicated”) or do actual existing barriers (e.g. related to declining health or a lack of resources) keep them at bay? This is a difficult question to answer and more research needs to be done into the real causes, and how these barriers can be removed.
In this article we will tackle the possibilities that social media and online discussion forums can offer to the elderly and how they can actively engage in social networking.

Connect with others, keep in touch and feel empowered

One benefit of social media for the elderly population is the possibility to keep in touch with friends and family through yet another medium, and one that is increasingly popular. Another benefit is that they can join groups and discussions with others interested in the same topics and hobbies. More importantly, they can share their problems with others, from the comfort and privacy of their own home. Author Anja K. Leist  summarises well the disinhibiting effect of online communities: in revealing otherwise painful or embarrassing information, self-disclosure is perceived easier via ICT than via eye-to-eye contact. Social media can, when used effectively, provide older adults with empowerment- a concept that refers to a global sense of connectedness and increased control and self-efficacy. It is interesting to point out that the benefit of empowerment is not limited to the elderly person, but also extends to others around e.g. the formal and informal care-givers. In a study investigating an online forum of care-givers, the number of messages posted per week reduced the negative feelings of strain in the care-giver and improved well-being for both care-giver and patient.

What about the dangers?

Not much is known about potentially negative consequences of social media use of older adults although the subject has been well studied in reference to children and teenagers. It is clear that negative outcomes need to be communicated as well if one wants the elderly person to use social media in a responsible and safe way. One threat that is always present is the misuse of personal information with criminal intent e.g. uploading holiday pictures after providing information on the home address could lead to a theft in one0s home.  Not so common but still plausible is the threat from identity theft (as it is relatively easy on some networks to set up a fake account in the name of someone else). Cyberbulling could also be a threat in the future. These issues can be eased by providing the elderly with clear information on how to deal with personal data online. This information is best provided by a family member or e-facilitator who knows how to handle privacy settings on a given network.

Some ideas

To get the most out of social media, one needs to be active on the sites. A family member, a care-giver or a facilitator can be the right person to explain concepts such as photo uploading, content sharing and similar. The older person who starts using the network will only feel empowered if they know how to find a friend, contribute to a discussion, upload media content and share this content on their profiles. There are also available specific guides on social media for the elderly.
Communication on social networks and the benefits of joining should always address the perceived attitudes among the elderly, and come up with solutions to overcome actual barriers. An excellent starting point is the home environment: using the knowledge of the informal and formal caregivers or persons who visit the elderly regularly. Another resource is the local telecentre or library where an e-facilitator is aware of the issues at hand and can help the elderly get connected onto social media sites and extend their networks.
Let us not forget that social networking sites themselves need to be more inclusive. Barriers need to be researched better so that developers can adapt their usability and user friendliness. For example, older users could be made more comfortable using social networks if privacy settings are closed-off by default, so that their information is not automatically broadcasted.

Conclusions

Social networks may play a key role in getting the elderly to enjoy the benefits of digital empowerment. Social networks alone cannot fulfill the important need for social  contact but are a valid and increasingly used tool to complement other ways of social interaction. In order to get older people to use social networks family members, care-givers, community facilitators and trainers should step in and provide assistance. In the same time design and user friendliness need to be addressed by social network developers.

References

Social Media Use of Older Adults: A Mini-Review
Author: Anja K. Leist
Found on web: November, 6 2013

Adults media use and attitudes report
Author: Ofcom
Published: April 2013
Found on web: November, 6 2013

Silver surfers forgotten in social media boom
Author: Chris Norval, The Conversation
Published: Sep 18, 2013
Found on web: November, 7 2013

Author: Masha Tarle