Depression and loneliness

One early study that examined the effects of ICT training in retirement communities found that those who received computer training (compared to a control group that did not) trended toward lower levels of depression and loneliness (for more information, see the 1999 and 2002 papers by White and colleagues, which are listed in the Recommended Readings section). Other studies had similar results that suggest that Internet use among older adults was associated with lower levels of depression and loneliness. Presumably, using the Internet gives older adults the capability to stay in touch with friends and family and helps maintain social ties and social support, which in turn helps prevent depression and feelings of loneliness. In theory, using the Internet also gives older adults unprecedented access to treatment and management information that they may use to combat the symptoms of depression and loneliness.

Examining depression and loneliness and how technology use may affect them was a central focus of our study. At the conclusion of our interventions, we wanted to determine whether our results would be similar to those in other studies. For depression, we used survey questions that are a part of commonly used scales that help to determine whether an older adult is experiencing symptoms of depression, such as the following:

  • • Are you basically satisfied with your life?
  • • Do you feel pretty worthless the way you are now?
  • • Do you often feel helpless?
  • • Do you prefer to stay at home rather than go out and do new things?
  • • Do you often get bored?

What we found in our study was that CCRC residents who went online several times a week were less depressed compared to those who did not go online at all, a finding that is consistent with other studies examining older adults. It would appear that, even in CCRCs, using technologies such as the Internet can have a positive impact with regard to mental well-being.

To determine if learning to use a computer and the Internet was associated with residents feeling less lonely, we examined how frequency of going on the Internet may have a relationship with loneliness, social isolation, and contact with others. In our study, loneliness was conceptualized as how often the participants felt lonely, whereas social isolation was conceptualized as how often the participants were bothered by not seeing enough of people who were important to them; contact with others was conceptualized as how much the participants felt that the Internet impacted aspects of their social interactions (thus these three measures, although similar, examined different aspects of social life). We found that frequency of going online did not affect social isolation (e.g., Internet use did not decrease how often they were bothered by not seeing close contacts). However, there was a significant impact on loneliness such that the more a participant indicated that he or she went online, the lower were his or her feelings of loneliness. We also found that the more a participant went online, the more likely he or she was to agree that the Internet:

  • • Made it easier to reach people
  • • Contributed to the ability to stay in touch with people
  • • Made it easier to meet new people
  • • Increased the quantity of communication with others
  • • Made the participant feel less isolated
  • • Helped the participant feel more connected to friends and family
  • • Increased the quality of communication with others

Our results were consistent with previous research that has shown that technology training and interventions designed for older adults can help decrease feelings of loneliness.

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