Can Social Media Reduce Depression In Older Adults With Chronic Pain?

A recent study examined how social media use affected the mental health of elderly adults living with pain.

There’s been lots of information put forward about the toll that social media can take on our mental health, with excessive use of social media linked to depression and addictive behaviors.

However, a new study indicates that there may be a silver lining: social media use might be associated with lower depression levels in older adults with pain. 

The study, published in Journals of Gerontology, Series B and reported by Reuters Health, followed 3,401 people ages 67 or older. The people in the study all lived in the community, rather than in an assisted living or nursing facility, and 54% of them said they’d been bothered by pain in the past month. 

Researchers found that among people with pain, 15% of those who did not use social media showed signs of depression. That dropped to just 6% among people who did engage with social media.

“Using online social media to maintain contact with family members and friends is a good way to compensate for seniors who restrict their social activities due to pain. It is not going to replace seeing people in person, but it will help supplement their reduced activities,” said Shannon Ang, a doctoral candidate in sociology at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and co-author of the study. “For us, this study is about preserving mental health.”

Despite the connection with better mental health, only 17% of participants were using social media, Ang found. He said that programs that teach the elderly how to use computers and engage online could be beneficial.

In the future, Ang wants to research the connection between social media and mental health further, looking at what social media platforms and patterns of use are most closely connected with mental health benefits. 

Healthcare providers say it isn’t necessarily surprising that social media could reduce depression symptoms, since it can alleviate feelings of isolation.

“It’s very well known that social support is helpful for depression and physical symptoms. It’s a growing area of interest in research and clinical care,” said Dr. William Pirl of the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, who wasn’t involved in the study. 

However, people should proceed with caution, Pirl said.

“People respond differently to it. Some people can become more anxious hearing other peoples’ stories or about other treatments for what they’re experiencing. There’s a lot of variability of whether social media is right for you.”

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