Social Media Widens the World—Even at 101

Betty Love Goodykoontz turned 101 on Sept. 1, and this year she's giving a gift to her loved ones instead of receiving one. Her gift of choice? A blog.

An engaged member of her community in Birmingham, Ala., and a retired schoolteacher, Goodykoontz knows better than nearly anyone just how important and significant a gift this is. She's witnessed more than just the digital revolution, seeing an entire world change exponentially over the last century.

On her 90th birthday more than 10 years ago, she took time to reflect upon seeing the world and the way in which we communicate within it change so drastically over the last century, in the form of a poem.

    After the pony express we corresponded by post;

    Now email delivers in seconds at most!

    In encyclopedias we used to get our "info;
    "Now the Internet tells us more than we want to know! …

Society changed, too, says the poem, “Martin Luther King’s dream turned on the lights/And we won the battle for Civil Rights!/Now women on the march for equal rights/In all they do …”

The Game-Changer From Loneliness

"I came from the horse and buggy days all the way to outer space," Goodykoontz said in an interview, “I've seen amazing things happen, and the technology -- the iPhone and everything that has developed since just then ... it blows my mind to see what we have now and where we came from."

For the centenarian, it's the computer that has been the game-changer: "It's a wonderful thing. For those of us that can't get out, we can bring the world in."

More than just a tool or channel for information, the Internet (and social networking, more specifically) has become a way for aging adults to connect to their loved ones and maintain their communities and relationships in ways more powerful than anything they ever imagined.

As adults move into older ages, the spatial and social barriers they encounter start taking their toll. Isolation, loneliness, and depression are commonly experienced as family and friends move away and are less accessible, and as individual mobility and independence start to decline.

An upcoming study to be published by Shelia Cotten, a sociologist and associate professor at the University of Alabama, Birmingham (UAB), reveals that Internet use was associated with a 30 percent decrease in depressive symptoms among older adults who used it regularly, while other studies have shown similarly impressive results.

The 74-plus demographic is the fastest growing demographic among social networks, according to the Pew Research Center's Internet & American Life Project, and social networking among Internet users ages 65 and older doubled between April 2009 and May 2010, jumping to 26 percent of all users.

Facebook, Twitter, and Skype all show the most growth in the older adult demographic. With 39 million people in the United States currently 65-plus -- and an estimated 55 million by 2020 -- social networks are sure to continue to see a surge in their older base.

Social Networks Less Intimidating

Laura Carstensen, who directors Stanford University's Center on Longevity, explained that social networking is proving more and more to be an entrance into technology for older adults. As a gateway, the vastness of the Web seems less intimidating, and many of the fears seniors have about computers and technology are put at ease when placed in the context of a community like Facebook.

Carstensen likened Facebook to genealogy on steroids -- a source of instant connection for adults who live increasingly isolated lives in assisted living facilities and away from their families, often struggling with depression as a result.

Senior centers around the country now offer computer classes that branch off into specific courses focusing on social networking and teaching older adults how to engage with these tools -- and they're growing in popularity. In Newport News, Va., the city recreation department offers a wide range of computer classes for seniors, such as "Computer Basics,” "How to Use Facebook” and "Internet Safety," which is available for new users to gain knowledge about protecting their privacy online, one of the biggest concerns for older adults new to the Web.

The Jewish Council for Aging in Washington, D.C., has an entire Senior Tech program in place, with computer courses geared toward learning the tech skills needed for job searching and in the workplace, including adding a profile to LinkedIn and utilizing social media. Students often go on to become volunteers and coaches for new students.

Transcending Assisted Living

In addition to her upcoming publication linking Internet use to decreases in depression in older adults, UAB’s Cotten spent the last year researching the impact that the Internet and social networking sites have on seniors living in assisted and independent living centers, particularly in terms of their social relationships and quality of life.

Cotten and her team of UAB graduate students led 300 older adults in computer training courses, setting out to discover whether information and communication technologies (ICTs) would allow individuals to "transcend social and spatial barriers," enabling residents in the study to enhance their social networks and feel a greater sense of connection to the world at large.

Visiting 15 assisted living communities for study, Cotten and her team led an eight week training class for the five communities randomly assigned to the ICT intervention component, meeting twice a week for 1.5-hour sessions. The other two arms of the study were control groups.

The ICT group started their computer classes learning the most basic skills: turning the computer on, logging in, opening and closing programs. They later moved on to e-mail, learning to search and evaluate information online, social networking, and how to use sites like Hulu, YouTube, and Google Earth -- a favorite among older adults, who enjoy checking up on their old homes and neighborhoods.

The mean age of the participants was 82.5 years, and the average time spent in an assisted living community was 3.25 years. Cotten and her team used field notes, focus group data, observations and five surveys distributed to participants over the course of a year to evaluate the results of the study.

For many participants, the classes weren’t their first time using a computer. "I had a computer back in '98," said Goodykoontz. "I had taught myself by trial and error; I thought [the class] would be a good chance to learn from a professional."

Surprising Results

The UAB study yielded surprising results. The ICT intervention group showed increases in stress and anxiety levels, and feeling "more limited in work and other activities due to stress." The other two groups showed either a slight decrease or no change.

However, when asked about perceived world size, the ICT group showed a significant increase, providing comments saying they "no longer feel left behind," and "the world seems bigger."

Despite the stress of the eight-week class, Cotten noted, "One of the things we speculate is that being in this technology class makes people realize the wealth of information that they don't know."

When asked "How has the Internet changed your life in any way?" -- the feedback was surprisingly poignant. One participant responded, "We feel like we've joined the human race," while another said the computer class was the best thing she'd done since her husband died. One participant's answer was particularly staggering: "We're not as close to the grave as we thought."

"No matter how many times I hear that, it still sends chills down my spine," said Cotten.