Does the Internet Reduce Depression in Older Americans?

April 10, 2014
By: Steve Anderson

It's a situation most of us has been in at one time or another: work's not going well, a boyfriend or girlfriend just left, a promotion fell through, an argument with a family member didn't end well at all, and so we turn on the Internet and watch funny cat videos until we feel better.

For some, this can be accomplished in just three or four videos, though in some cases this only helps a little. But the phenomenon of turning to the Internet when depressed or bored is nothing new. Now, a new study from the Phoenix Center suggests that it may actually work well for the elderly too, reducing healthcare costs and improving quality of life.

The Phoenix Center study examined issues of depression in the elderly community, and how Internet use related to that phenomenon. It used a sample size ranging over several years based on information from the Health and Retirement Survey running from 2002 to 2008, and focused on depression, an issue encountered by reportedly almost eight percent of the elderly population.

What the Phoenix Center's study discovered was that Internet use among the elderly actually decreased depression by 34 percent, and mainly thanks to one of the Internet's biggest features: the perceived “shrinking” of the world around us. Essentially, as the report discovered, Internet use provided older Americans with a means to “...overcome the social and spatial boundaries that are believed to fuel depression.”

Essentially, because the world online is much smaller a place than the world offline, it's less isolating, and thus, a reducer of depression. It's not so much about watching kittens play on YouTube (News - Alert)—which by itself is a well-known temporary stress reliever—as it is about being able to more readily keep in touch. The same technologies that power collaboration and videoconferencing systems at work can also be used at home to bring a grandson into the room with an older person, or allow even far-away family members to communicate.

Plus, older folks not only have the opportunity to chat with friends even on days when leaving the house is difficult or impossible, but to also see other places that may have been previously out of reach.

Image via Shutterstock.

Perhaps one of the best-known early tests of the Oculus Rift was Paul Rivot's grandmother, who tried on the Rift and saw a variety of different scenes, all while sitting at a kitchen table connected to a laptop. The video of said test was seen well over two million times, and showed up in a variety of places. That kind of technology is becoming increasingly available to users, and is potentially able to open up the sights of the world in a fashion that doesn't require several hour drives or flights to reach.

The idea that the Internet can reduce depression may be a bit controversial, but too many have likely seen its impact on an anecdotal basis to dismiss the idea. While depression may not be as easy a cure as half a dozen cute cat videos, there's something to be said for a technology that can not only produce laughs on demand, but also shrink the size of a world was once so large and inaccessible.

Edited by Stefania Viscusi