A recent study conducted by University of Michigan Rackham student Shannon Ang has revealed that social media use among older adults can limit the effects of pain on depression.  

Ang, the study’s lead author and a doctoral candidate in the Department of Sociology and Institute for Social Research, was curious of the long-term consequences of online participation through social networking platforms. He was interested specifically in the elderly population because of the lack of studies related to the age group.

“I was interested in whether social media would be able to supplement the effects of people who are in pain or are physically limited,” Ang said.

Ang’s colleague on the study, Tuo-Yen Chen of Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, was also interested in how social media could alter pain’s role in depression.

Social media has not been considered as a potential intervention strategy,” Chen said. “So, Shannon and I were wondering whether utilizing social media could lessen depression among individuals with pain.”

With the onset of such discomfort among elderly individuals, social interactions outside of the household naturally become limited. Ang and Chen sought to study how those affected could potentially be influenced by virtual interaction through social media.

Before the study, Ang and Chen hypothesized that social media usage would be helpful in relieving depression amid pain and that people might already be using social media to supplement their own social networking.

The basis of Ang and Chen’s research emerged from the National Health and Aging Trends Study, a publicly available data set that gathers information from more than 8,000 senior citizen Medicare beneficiaries.

“The purpose of NHATS is to foster research to guide efforts to reduce disability, maximize health and independent functioning and enhance quality of life at older ages,” Vicki Freedman, a research professor at the University’s Institute for Social Research’s Survey Research Center and a co-principal investigator of NHATS, said.

The survey asks its participants general questions on if they are experiencing feelings of depression, pain or have trouble falling asleep. In addition to queries on depressive symptoms, NHATS also inquires about senior citizens’ online activities.

For the purpose of their study, Ang and Chen focused mainly on the responses to the single question of if respondents had used a social media site in the past month. According to the survey, 17 percent of respondents had used a social networking platform in the past month.

The data they analyzed reaffirmed Ang and Chen’s speculation that social media could alleviate the negative effects of pain on depression. However, they discovered that respondents who experienced pain were less likely to be using online social networking as support for their discomfort, which contradicted part of their initial hypothesis.

This discovery surprised Ang, but he recognized the external factors that limit older people from navigating the internet and social media sites.

“I thought it would become more ubiquitous given the convenience of having that tool,” Ang said.

Ang said he isn’t sure this research will have much relevance to younger people.

“It’s difficult to say that this is applicable to younger people because they use social media in a vastly different way,” Ang said.

To approach such a question, Ang thinks more information would be needed.

“Prevalence, as well as predictors of depression and pain, differs for younger versus older individuals,” Chen said. “Social media usage among a younger cohort is also very different across the generations. As such, it is difficult for me to make such a prediction.”

In terms of real-world application, Ang believes their findings could be used in hospital settings to keep patients supported and connected with their families during long periods of hospitalization.

Chen still believes in the value of face-to-face interaction because of its opportunity for older adults to physically move around in addition to psychological benefits obtained from socialization.

“We find that social media appears to be one way of buffering depression in our study, especially when seniors are unable to move around due to pain,” Chen said. “Rather than emphasizing the importance of utilizing social media for older adults, we are suggesting but one potential solution for the elderly who is under such situation.”

Still, Ang said he sees this research as an important first step in helping older adults stay connected to the world around them.

“For me, the study is more of a first step towards understanding what the effects of social media are for older people,” Ang said. “There is real potential for social media to help older people stay connected, especially in cases where they might be limited because of pain or disability.”


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