Much has been written about the increase in loneliness and isolation that has accompanied the internet. This is said to be caused by shallow online friendships which are no substitute for genuine relationships. Being exposed to the heavily curated lives of others on social media has also been found to create feelings of depression and anxiety in some people.
A recent academic study provides a more nuanced view, revealing that rather than leading to misery, the internet has made people happier. This is especially the case for the elderly and those with health problems who would otherwise have limited contact with a wider community.
The study measured how the internet has impacted life satisfaction among those aged 65 and older in comparison with people aged 20-64. Life satisfaction was based on the participants’ feelings about their health, education, job, relationships and sense of belonging.
Internet usage was also analyzed to determine if there were any correlations between how participants used the internet and their reported levels of happiness.
Overall, internet users were happier than non-users. While seniors benefited the most in terms of happiness from using the internet, the digital divide between old and young grew wider over the period of the study as more young people became active online compared to older people.
Why Do Older People Benefit More?
The study’s finding that access to the internet enhanced life satisfaction for marginalized social groups such as the elderly and those in poor health mirrors another study published in the UK in 2010 which found that the groups who benefited the most from gaining internet access were low-income earners, people in developing countries, and women.
The researchers believed that happiness was enhanced among these groups because the internet empowered people and gave them a sense of control over their lives.
The results of both studies are important because they can indicate how important computer skills and internet access are in overcoming social disadvantage.
While internet usage has increased among all groups, there is still much room for improvement. Data from 2014 shows that 41% of seniors in the United States did not use the internet at all. Other studies have revealed that although internet usage is high in the US, rates lag in low-income areas.
It’s clear that rather than causing loneliness and anxiety, the internet can help to alleviate these problems and boost mental health. The internet can be a powerful tool for connecting people and it also provides opportunities for acts of kindness and generosity.
While the internet does bring out the best in human nature it also brings out the worst. Sadly, for many young people, it is a place of bullying and pain. Like any tool, the internet is open to abuse and there are people who become addicted or use the internet to avoid their offline problems.
What Can We Learn from the Elderly?
The increase in happiness experienced by the elderly through the internet provides some good insights into how the internet can foster wellbeing. Older people use online searches to find helpful information and engage in activities that make everyday life easier, such as online shopping.
The elderly connect with family and friends, and have embraced social media but they spend significantly less time online than younger people.
Teens are the most prolific internet users, spending up to a staggering nine hours a day online. This group also reports the highest level of depression linked to online activity. The most frequent users of social media are 2.7 times more likely to suffer from depression.
There is clearly a point where being online stops contributing to well-being and becomes detrimental, but the tricky part is identifying when this limit has been reached.
It is helpful to remind yourself periodically that online activity should enhance life offline, not replace it. The internet has empowered many people by giving them more control over their lives, but when the internet starts to take control, its benefits are cancelled out.
Younger people can learn from the elderly about moderating their use of the internet and engaging in productive online activities that increase happiness. Older people should also heed the lessons learned by the young and recognize when they’re spending too much time online. This will ensure they continue to get the benefits of the internet while avoiding its pitfalls.