From the Editor: The Internet and Seniors

V. Krishna Kumar

V. Krishna Kumar

V. Krishna Kumar, PhD
kkumar@wcupa.edu

Internet can be a great self-help media for young and old alike to exchange information, shop, and stay connected, informed, and entertained. By no means, what some seniors do is passive (e.g., read online news, watch videos); the 2014 Pew Research Survey notes that seniors (56%) go online to communicate with family/friends (75%), shop (58%), and seek health information (53%). The 2015 Pew Research survey shows a small increase in the numbers of seniors online to 58% from 2014, but an 18% increase from 43% in 2010. Social media users have gone up from 11% in 2010 to 35% in 2015; it was just 2% in 2001.

Medlock et al. (2015) surveyed individuals in a local senior organization in the Netherlands and found that seniors (65 plus), 45/93 or 48% of those responding sought information online (past 12 months) before medical appointments. Of these, 84% (37/45) sought information after appointments and 46% used the information obtained online to prepare for appointments.  Internet was “the most often preferred source for additional health information” concerning symptoms, prognosis, and treatment options.  Campbell (2005) trained 70 seniors in Pittsburgh, PA to use the Internet over a five-week period. Questionnaires were administered before and after training.  Of the 52 people returning the questionnaires after training, 33 (63.5%) agreed with the question “Did your levels of participation in your health care change since you began using the internet”; the rest disagreed.  However, a majority (86.5%) indicated they used the Internet to locate health information.  A few (36%) seniors used the Internet after office visits to check on medications (15%), to check on updates on a health issue (6%), or to verify information given by the provider (15%).  A few seniors in the study used the Internet to prepare a list of questions for their provider; however, 42% of the seniors “believed that the Internet empowered them to have more direct relationship with their physician.”

In a longitudinal 10-year study (2003-2012), Lissitsa and Chachashvili-Bolotin (2016) compared younger (20 to 64) with older groups (65 plus) of residents in Israel.  Each year about 7500 individuals were included in the study, totaling 73,523 respondents, with 61,455 respondents in the younger group and 12,068 in the older group over the 10-year period.

Their results suggest a digital divide (see also McConatha & Corcoran, 2015) and a life satisfaction divide between the two groups with consistently higher average scores for the younger groups over the 10 years. However, the older Internet users expressed greater satisfaction when socio-demographic and health problems variables were controlled for.

For the younger group, the percentage of Internet users (use in the preceding 3 months) increased from 44% to 78% over the 10-year period; for seniors, the corresponding increase was from 8% to 34%. Most respondents in both groups reported using the Internet for seeking information (88% plus, all years) and then e-mail (78% plus, all years).  The percentage of social media users rose in both groups over 10 years: younger group: 22% in 2003 to 67% in 2012; older group 11% to 52%.  Internet gamers decreased in the younger group (43% in 2001 to 34% in 2012), but in the older group there was a small increase from 37% to 40%.   Internet shoppers increased in both groups (younger from 19% to 39%; older from 15% to 28%).

Over both groups, information seeking, social media use, and playing games on the Internet were unrelated to life satisfaction, but email and shopping were. Chachashvili-Bolotin (2016) suggested that email could help seniors seek help with problems and mobilize support without leaving their homes.  Online shopping can be enjoyable where individuals can compare prices and find better bargains. Internet users with health issues expressed greater life satisfaction although this effect weakened as income rose.

Given that the older group of Internet users reported higher life satisfaction after controlling for health problems and socio-demographic variables, Lissitsa and Chachashvili-Bolotin (2016) concluded that Internet adoption “can serve as a channel for increasing life satisfaction” among people with weaker social standing (p. 203) and suggested developing a policy for encouraging Internet use among low income groups and senior citizens.

Such general surveys do serve a purpose, but hardly tap the more interesting uses seniors may make of the Internet. A study is needed to investigate life satisfaction among the more sophisticated older users of the Internet—these include app developers, business entrepreneurs, bloggers, sole publishers of literary content or magazine type content, and various types of volunteers, especially teachers.  Sugata Mitra, PhD, a physicist famous for his “Hole in the Wall Computer” experiments, recruited British grandmothers (retired teachers) living in England (“the granny cloud,” as he refers to it) to teach English to rural children 6000 miles away in Tamilnadu, India—a fascinating use of grandmothers!

Internet provides active involvement opportunities for seniors where they can connect, shop, seek and share information, and self-publish. Importantly, online activities may contribute to seniors’ increased life satisfaction.  Of course, it is also a dangerous place where they can be duped and their computers hacked.

References

Campbell, R. (2005). Consumer Informatics: Elderly persons and the Internet. Online Journal Perspectives in Health Management, 2(2), PMCID: PMC204378.

Lissitsa, S., & Chachashvili-Bolotin, S. (2016). Life satisfaction in the internet age—changes in the past decade. Computers in Human Behavior, 54, 197-206.

Medlock S, Eslami S, Askari M, Arts DL, Sent D, de Rooij SE, & Abu-Hanna A (2015). Health Information–Seeking Behavior of Seniors Who Use the Internet: A Survey.   Journal of Medical Internet Research, 17(1), e10; DOI: 10.2196/jmir.3749

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