Leaping across the digital divide? Social media, mental health and later life

Social media can be powerful tool for maintaining relationships. Making the most of it requires a bit of technological know-how, and obviously an internet connection. But these are not things to which we all have equal access.

Indeed, several demographic factors correlate with inequalities in technological literacy, and age continues to be one of them.

Older adults use the internet at lower rates than younger adults. According to 2016 ONS figures, there are an estimated 5.3 million British adults who have never used the internet, and 2.8 million of them are 75 or older. In the past three months 74.1% of people between 65 and 74 have used the internet, but of the 75 and overs, only 38.7% have done so. In comparison, nearly 100% of percent of people age 16 to 44 have used the internet within the past 3 months. All that being said, it is worth noting that people over the age of 65 have experienced a rapid increase in internet use in recent years.

Internet use has the potential to address some of the very issues that some people in later life face, among them isolation and loneliness. Indeed, social media is increasingly being used by older adults to maintain regular contact with friends and family, and this has clear benefits to health and wellbeing.

It makes intuitive sense that this would be the case, and that is part of why our Standing Together Project for older people recently set up a Facebook group. We work with residents of retirement and extra care housing schemes across London, facilitating peer-support groups for people experiencing memory difficulties, poor mental health and/or loneliness. We estimate that 95% of the people who have engaged with the project are not internet users. Even with the apparent benefits of social media use to people in later life, it would be fair to ask how we think a Facebook page will help us to fulfil on the aims of the project.

We like to think we have our eye on the future. As noted above, people in later life are using the internet and social media at ever increasing rates. At the same time, the proportion of the population aged 60 and over is increasing, and is projected to reach 18 million people by 2024.

This, in turn, will push up demand for retirement and extra care housing. Housing providers have acknowledged that they will need to ensure that their residents have good internet access, both because of the exclusion that they will face without it, but also because an ever greater proportion of people will expect it.

In the meantime, we hope that family, friends, volunteers and housing staff will use the Facebook group to connect with each other and replicate the work. We also hope that those few project beneficiaries who are currently online will use it for the same purpose.

Obviously social media is not a substitute for face-to-face interaction, particularly when addressing loneliness and isolation as the Standing Together Projects aims to do.  But social media is arguably one part of the response. In this way, we aim for the Facebook group to be one of the legacies of the project, and a contribution to its sustainability.