In a new study, researchers found more frequent internet use is linked to increases in wellbeing in older adults, particularly those who are wealthy and more educated.
It is the first study of its kind to examine the links between different internet usage and the associated impacts on mental health and reveals that those from higher socioeconomic groups are reaping benefits to mental wellbeing not experienced by others.
The research was conducted by a team at UCL.
The study examined more than 9,000 people over the age of 50, over a period of six years (2012—2017).
Researchers found a positive long-term effect of using the internet daily, with infrequent use (monthly or less) associated with deteriorating levels of life satisfaction among older people.
Measured from 5 (lowest satisfaction) to 35 (highest satisfaction), respondents who used the internet daily reported average life satisfaction scores of 26.12, compared to 24.44 for those who used the internet monthly or less.
Those who used the internet daily also had a lower average depression score of 1.02, compared to 1.76 for those who had never used the internet, measured on a scale from 0 to 8 (where 0 represents no depressive symptoms).
Over the period of the study, daily users saw larger increases in their life satisfaction scores than those who used the internet weekly or never, and had the highest scores overall by the end of the study.
However, the impact on mental wellbeing was found to vary by internet use type, the most common of which is ‘information access’ and ‘communication’, with 68% and 66% of participants reporting use of these two types, respectively.
People who used the internet for ‘communication’ and keeping in touch with others, specifically for sending emails, were more likely to report lower levels of depression, as well as better life satisfaction than those who did not.
Yet those who used the internet for ‘information access’, specifically searching for jobs, had worse life satisfaction compared to those who did not, even when the working status was taken into consideration.
The research team also found that those in the wealthiest quintile were most likely to use the internet daily; 31% of daily users were from the most affluent group, while those from the least affluent group accounted for 9% of daily users.
Those in the highest educational and occupational groups experienced a larger positive impact of frequent use on mental health than those in the lowest groups.
The differences in depression and life satisfaction scores were steeper over time for those with a degree compared to those without, highlighting the greater potential for those with higher educational backgrounds to improve their mental wellbeing through more frequent internet use than others.
To help close these gaps and improve mental wellbeing, the authors recommend encouraging older people to use the internet to socialize, to help mitigate the impacts of social isolation and loneliness on mental health.
Currently, according to the study, around 56% of older adults go online every day, whilst over a quarter have never used the internet.
The authors highlight that there are various reasons why older people may not use the internet: the barriers to access can be much more than about availability.
One author of the study is Dr. Stephen Jivraj (UCL Epidemiology & Public Health).
The study is published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research.
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