With the proportion of older adults using the internet increasing every year, researchers have begun to examine how the internet affects various aspects of their well-being. Perhaps because the internet is often a solitary activity, its impact on social support and social networks has gained some attention in the literature. In a recent study by Hogeboom, McDermott, Perrin and Osman, researchers examined the potential association between Internet use and social networks among adults age 50 and older.
Level of social support is significant because of its demonstrated impact on physical and psychosocial well-being. The literature on internet use and social support among the general population has produced mixed and sometimes conflicting findings. Some studies have suggested that internet use increases social support, often by enabling more frequent communication with families and friends, thereby allowing individuals to maintain relationships. Users of disease-specific online support groups also report benefits. However other studies suggest that internet use weakens relationships by detracting from face-to-face interactions, and adversely affects those who are most socially isolated.
Data for this study were obtained from the 2004 wave of the Health and Retirement Study (HRS), a longitudinal study of more than 22,000 noninstitutionalized Americans age 50 and older (Heeringa & Connor, 1996). The final sample included 2284 individuals, approximately half of whom were internet users. Three areas were assessed relative to the impact of internet use by older adults: 1) number of close ties with family, friends, and confidants, and 2) number of contacts with those close ties. In addition, they sought to determine whether age moderates any Internet use-social network associations.
Researchers found that internet use was not a significant predictor of close ties. It was positively associated with contact with friends and family, in-person contacts with other family, and
attendance at meetings. Internet users over the age of 50 were more likely to participate in non-religious organizations or clubs than nonusers, consistent either other studies that demonstrate an association between the internet use and community involvement. It should be noted however that the cross-sectional nature of this study precludes any assumptions of causality. Still this study makes a valuable contribution to the small body of literature on the impact of internet use on social support among older adults.
Hogeboom, D.L., McDermott, R.J. , Perrin, K.M. , Osman, H. & Bell-Ellison, B.A. (2010) Internet use and social networking among middle aged and older adults. Educational Gerontology, 36(2):93 – 111.