A Second Life for Isolated Older Adults? A Real-Life Look at Using Virtual Environments for Socializing

Advances in Internet technology have enabled the creation of immersive, realistic 3-D online environments. One of the most popular of these is Second Life, a world that users can explore to find areas and people of interest. Users of Second Life create avatars of themselves, which can then explore this virtual world and interact with other users in the world. Second Life users can attend courses or virtual dance parties, do virtual shopping or create their own areas. Such environments potentially offer isolated older adults a venue for increased social interaction; however, it was not known how older adults would respond to this virtual world and its social opportunities.

When researchers introduced older adults to Second Life, taught them to navigate it, and then evaluated their responses to time spent in it, three main themes emerged: In general, participants were optimistic about the idea of forming completely new social relationships in a virtual world. Some even saw advantages of relationships where they could choose their avatar’s appearance and felt they could be more forthcoming than in a face-to-face interaction. The second theme related to participant views on the potential for close relationships to be formed in a virtual world. Some felt that real-life relationships were superior to those formed online. And while some new online relationships were formed, some of the strongest were with other study participants who they met in person during the study. The third theme related to obstacles to relationship formation. The authors noted that “more commonly, older adults were not able to develop online relationships.” Obstacles included the participants’ own personalities, difficulty finding other avatars, language differences, lack of face-to-face interaction, rejection by other avatars, and discomfort with inappropriately sexual interactions.

The authors concluded that in Second Life, “for the majority of participants… the benefits of anonymity did not outweigh the challenges identified” and suggested that Second Life may not be the ideal platform for this population. However, they noted that the older adult experience in virtual worlds could be improved if the obstacles identified in this study could be addressed in an easier-to-use online venue where social discomfort could be minimized.


O’Brien CJ, Smith JL, and Beck DE. Real relationships in a virtual world: Social engagement among older adults in Second Life. Gerontechnology (2016); 15(3): 171–179.


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