Social Media Safety for Seniors

Senior woman with tablet computer

How many holiday cards did you receive this year, compared with a decade ago? Fewer people are composing a newsy Christmas letter these days, because their friends all saw their vacation pictures and news of that new grandchild on Facebook. Seniors who don't use social media can end up feeling left out.

Today more than a third of older adults are on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Nextdoor and other social media platforms, and that number is growing. How is this new way of communicating affecting the way we age today?

Last year researchers from Penn State University conducted a study on the effect of social media on older adults. They found that using these sites could be a good thing for seniors, especially those who were at risk of isolation. Being part of a social network helped these seniors feel part of a larger community. "This is important, especially for older adults who might be aging in place, because they have mobility constraints that limit their ability to socialize," reported study author S. Shyam Sundar. "Certain things you do on Facebook can give you gratification, like fulfilling the needs for activity, having interactions with others, having a greater sense of agency, and building community."

But other studies have warned of pitfalls. In 2018, researchers from the University of Pennsylvania found that the more time we spend on social media, the more likely we are to experience depression and anxiety … and even an increased sense of loneliness. Penn State's Sundar says that developers of social media networks should consider the needs of older users, and create features that enhance the sense of identity and community of seniors while also protecting their privacy. Let’s hope that happens! But meanwhile, there's a lot individuals can do to make social media a positive, safe experience.

  1. Check your stress level. According to a study from Pew Research Center, spending a lot of time on social media can be very stressful. Said the researchers, "Stress might come from maintaining a large network of Facebook friends, feeling jealous of their well-documented and well-appointed lives, the demands of replying to text messages, the addictive allure of photos of fantastic crafts on Pinterest, having to keep up with status updates on Twitter, and the 'fear of missing out' on activities in the lives of friends and family." If this describes you, it might be time for a social media time-out.
  2. Learn about the latest scams, and make "suspicious" your default mode. Second only to technical problems, fraud and criminal activity are the top challenges to seniors online. Scammers are ruthless and smart, always coming up with new ways to part us from our money and personal data. Remember that if you don't know a person in real life, be cautious. A crook can impersonate the IRS, Microsoft, a debt collector, an antivirus company, Social Security, Medicare—even someone you know, as in the infamous "grandparent scam." Be sure your antivirus software is up to date, and be cautious with your personal data.
  3. Get your tech support ducks in a row. Not all of us are "techy." Seniors who didn't grow up with digital technology may need a fair amount of help to keep everything up and running. Maybe a family member would commit to helping, either in person or remotely. Or sign up for a tech support service from a reputable company. These professionals can help with software installation, remove a virus, tune up your computer and provide all-around peace of mind.
  4. Learn about social media etiquette. If you're just getting the hang of social media, ask an experienced user to help you with everything from your privacy settings to online etiquette—for example, the comments function is not the place for a private chat, and nothing you post online is really private. One more tip—don't feed the trolls! It's easy to get sucked into negative interactions online, and discussions can become far more toxic than they would if you were sitting across the table from the person.
  5. Don't fall for fake health news. Advertisements posing as news items are common on social media. And many opportunistic "news sites" make money from advertisers for every curious user they lure to their site. This is relatively harmless if a site is tempting you with nothing worse than one of those "The Best Ice Cream in Every State" articles that makes you click through 50 different screens, each with different ads. But many sites pretend to share legitimate medical advice. They often use clickbait-style headlines, such as "Doctors Don't Want You to Know This Secret," or "Throw Away Your Diabetes Medication and Eat This Instead," with sensationalistic health claims. Following their advice could harm your health. Don't believe it—and don't share it.
  6. Protect your sleep. You've probably heard that the bright light emitted by smartphones, computers and tablets can disrupt our sleep. And that's not all. University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine experts say social media interactions tempt us to stay up later than we should. When we finally do turn in, we might toss and turn thinking of a heated comment thread or news article we just read. And it can be a cycle. Said study author Dr. Brian A. Primack, "Difficulty sleeping may lead to increased use of social media, which may in turn lead to more problems sleeping. This cycle may be particularly problematic with social media, because many forms involve interactive screen time that is stimulating and rewarding and, therefore, potentially detrimental to sleep."
  7. Don't neglect your IRL (in real life) relationships. Studies show that people can be so engrossed in social media interaction that it overshadows their flesh and blood friendships and family relations. Experts coined the term "phubbing"—short for "phone snubbing"—to describe what most of us witness on a regular basis: a get-together of people during which some attendees are focused on their phone, not the gathering. They're more intent on posting a picture of their meal than actually enjoying it. "When you're not busy getting sucked into clickbait social media, you're actually spending more time on things that are more likely to make you feel better about your life," said University of Pennsylvania psychologist Melissa G. Hunt. "In general, I would say, put your phone down and be with the people in your life."

Some people are swearing off social media, but for most of us, these platforms are here to stay. Still, it's important not to overdo it, and to make time for real life. If you're feeling stressed, if you have that compelled-to-post-a-selfie-or-it-didn't-happen impulse, or if internet trolls are getting you down, turn off your device periodically and focus on other things. You may find that this restores a healthier balance between the online world and real life.

Source: Kentuckiana Regional Planning & Development Agency (KIPDA) in association with IlluminAge Communication Partners; copyright 2018 IlluminAge