The Internet is becoming the town square for the global village of tomorrow.”

– Bill Gates

Using social networking and online gaming as a gateway into the digital world, older Internet users are joining Facebook, Twitter, and Skype to connect with friends and family, and participate in online communities. In this blog, we examine these promising opportunities for older adults, as well as highlight some important resources for preventing elder abuse and financial exploitation online.

Woman on ComputerThe Internet is best known for its fast-paced nature and bold presentations of youth culture. It may come as a surprise then that the fastest growing demographic of Internet users is adults 74 years and older, according to the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project. Through online engagement, older adults are becoming more active in today’s vibrant digital culture, contributing their knowledge and wisdom to the dialectic mosaics of social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter.

This national trend of integration into the digital town square has the potential to yield positive benefits for the mental and emotional well being of older adults. With about 25% of the nation’s older adults expressing clinically significant symptoms for depressive disorders, it’s important to consider the importance of countering social isolation, which is a serious risk factor for elder abuse.

The Benefits of Online Engagement for Older Adults

In a 2012 study, sociologist Dr. Shelia Cotten, a Professor at the University of Alabama, Birmingham (UAB), reported a 20-28% decrease in depressive symptoms among older adults who regularly engage in online activities. “It’s this kind of bigger sense of mattering, in the social world, if you will,” Cotten explained in an interview with the Atlantic. “You’re not just something that’s been pushed off to the wayside anymore. You still have consequence.”

Happycomputerlady_XSmall-1Researchers from Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas found that playing online multi-player video games can also have positive socialization benefits for elder gamers. While online gaming is popular across all generations, Trinity’s study reports that older gamers play longer and most often participate in games focused on cooperation rather than competition. So while accepting Facebook friend requests from you parents and grandparents may have been unexpected, just wait until you meet their World of Warcraft avatar!

Social Media Classes for Older Internet Users

Organizations like Older Adults Technology Services (OATS), offer computer training, seminars on online safety, and social networking classes in local senior centers. According to their mission statement, “OATS is committed to maximizing the power of technology to help older adults to live healthier, more connected, socially engaged lives.” Their course, “Social Networking for Older Adults” helps students create their own Facebook page and connect with friends, family members, and invites them to participate in their Senior Planet Digital Community.

480960_10151211420916631_1657940609_nWith services on the web and on the ground, Senior Planet has “engaged, trained and supported older adults in using technology to improve their quality of life and enhance their social and civic engagement.” Launched online in 2006, Senior Planet is an exciting tool for encouraging older adults to engage online and celebrate aging.

In an interview with Mashable, Sarah Hoit, the CEO of Connected Living, argued that all generations should be included in today’s digital culture. “Social engagement is especially important for seniors who depend on remote family members for support or who are going through life transitions such as the loss of a spouse or the need to move out of their house into an assisted living community.” Connected Living seeks to connect older adults with each other and the digital world at large through offering technology classes in assisted living homes, where many residents often suffer from social isolation and depression.

Preventing Elder Financial Abuse Online

The exciting benefits to online engagement must be met with apprehension for the digital vulnerability of older adults, who are prime targets for many large-scale Internet scams.  The Government Accountability Office has deemed elder financial exploitation an “epidemic with society-wide repercussions,” robbing victims of millions each year.

The growing population of older Internet users is a welcomed trend in the digital world, as they contribute greatly to the robustness of our digital town squares. We must stay ahead of this burgeoning digital trend. Thus, further research is needed to determine whether older adults participating in online culture are at risk for elder financial abuse and if so, how to prevent this abuse from occurring.  As elder justice advocates, we must raise awareness and take action against elder financial exploitation and it’s ever increasing presence in the global village of tomorrow.

by Alexandra Pearson, Communications Specialist, NYCEAC

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