My mother is an extrovert. She loves to share her life story and to learn more about the people she meets. She loves big social events, like birthday parties, and to be surrounded by people (especially her grandchildren).
As a child, my father would capture her on our 8mm camera talking to random people. During a visit to the Washington Monument, she took up half a reel of film peppering some poor soul from Ireland with questions about his life.
So it should be no surprise that my mother uses social media to connect with old friends and to make new ones. When she can’t get out of the house, she uses social media to bond with the world beyond Youngstown, Ohio.
For my mother, Facebook is like a big social event. And with social media, the party never ends.
She doesn’t classify herself as a senior citizen. Mom looks younger than her age (she’s 60-something), and she often does and says the kinds of things we expect from 20-year-olds. Still, her physical condition often limits her mobility, and sometimes she’s stuck with few options for joining the outside world in person. And this frustrates her.
This begs the question: How can we assist older adults who crave links to the world outside their homes?
Before Facebook and other social media, this was a problem for caregivers. Now, with social media, there are endless options for my mother and others like her to make those connections.
The fact is, the benefits for older adults’ use of social media go way beyond maintaining relationships with family and friends.
Enter the Ages 2.0 project, a study of the elderly in the U.K. and Italy and their uses of social media. The researchers looked at how new technologies promote social connections and lead to a better life for older adults.
Dr. Lucia Di Furia, coordinator of the Ages 2.0 project, suggested that training older adults to use computers and social media can promote social interaction and lead to improved health.
Di Furia and her colleagues found that as older adults learned to use social technologies they reported increased levels of self-competence. Of course, this is probably true for most people learning any new technological tool. Figure out how to use Twitter or send out your first Instagram pic and you feel like a gold-medal winner.
But the Ages 2.0 researchers also found that social media and computer use improved cognitive capacity. They also suggest that social media use could have a beneficial overall impact on physical and mental health.
When my mother talks about her recent social media escapade, I see the Ages 2.0 findings for myself. She’s proud when she figures out Skype or some new platform, and she wants to learn more.
And if using social media leads to a stronger body and mind, I’ll encourage her to use social media everyday.
~ A version of this column appeared in the Sunday, May 10, 2015 "Connected" section of the Vindicator newspaper.
Dr. Adam C. Earnheardt is associate professor and chair of the department of communication at Youngstown State University in Youngstown, OH, USA. He researches and writes about social media and technology, sports and fans.