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Social media: a solution to seniors feeling lonely and isolated?

Seniors on the Sunshine Coast are being asked to give online gaming and social media a go, all in the name of science, as a local university aims to tackle feelings of loneliness and social isolation among older Australians.

A study will investigate how engaging on different social media platforms can impact on feelings of loneliness and social isolation [Source: Shutterstock]
A study will investigate how engaging on different social media platforms can impact on feelings of loneliness and social isolation [Source: Shutterstock]

The study, by the University of the Sunshine Coast  in conjunction with the University of Wollongong and the University of Nevada, will work with 21 local seniors to look at how engaging on different social media platforms can impact on feelings of loneliness and social isolation.

University of the Sunshine Coast’s Associate Professor Don Kerr spoke about the study, saying that the participants will be split into three groups of seven playing and online trivia quiz, with one group using Facebook, another using Skype, and the final group making use of a  tailored application developed by the University of Wollongong called Seniors online Conversation Space.

Associate Professor Kerr also highlighted that it was important not to assume that older people would react the same way to technology as younger people.

“Older people have been typecast as not being very computer savvy, but a one-size-fits-all approach is very problematic in the way our society views things,” he explains.

“We are looking at a range of social communications tools to see how it’s going to work for them, what they like and dislike, where they think they are having richer interactions, and how it might be used in the future.

“The questions we ask will be very open-ended because ultimately we want to know what works for them with the goal of helping older people stay in their own homes for longer.

“Each week we are rating them on a globally-accepted wellbeing index to monitor is there are any improvements.”

Seniors advocacy group, National Seniors, has heard about the initiative with Interim Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Professor John McCallum reiterating that loneliness and social isolation are key social problems among older Australians, and are bad for their health.

“People lose members of their support convoys through people moving, entering retirement and aged care facilities, and death - it’s one of those risks of ageing,” Professor McCallum explains.

“Research has shown that as we age, strong social relationships increase our likelihood of survival by 50 percent, which is as powerful as quitting smoking, losing weight or improving fitness.

“In terms of social media, there’s no doubt it does provide some positive connections for older people, especially family members and and friends who live at a distance.

“Increasingly, online technology is also being used for people who are isolated through distance or physical disability to tap medical and other services without having to leave their homes.”

While he acknowledges that online activities do connect people, Professor McCallum says it does so not in the same ways as face-to-face and says you have to be able to imagine the virtual world as real, which many older people do not.

“So whether or not gaming online will have a positive impact on loneliness and social isolation - well, that’s for this new study to determine,” he says.

The study, funded by Perpetual Philanthropy, is expected to be complete at the end of June.

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