Internet Use Curbs Depression

A new study shows that Internet use among older adults correlates with lower depression rates.

It’s a gloomy thing to say, but the older we get, the more likely we are to be unhappy.

So called “late-life depression” affects as many as 10 million Americans in their middle age and beyond. While it makes good old common sense that when the fun of a reckless youth is a mere memory, we might be more likely to be depressed, this hasn’t stopped scientists in great numbers from studying the higher rate of clinical depression among the elderly. And that’s a good thing, because every now and then one these studies points not just to the confirmation of the trend, but to potential means of keeping the blues at bay.

“That’s an equivalent of a 33 percent reduction in depression” 

A recent study published in The Journals of Gerontology, Series B: Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences (a publication to which you, dear reader, are doubtless a subscriber) points to the Internet as a source of therapy for depression.

The researchers scrubbed data from the Health and Retirement Study, which collects information from more than 22,000 people in the U.S. every two years. All respondents were retired — though admittedly not all of them were elderly, as the survey includes people aged 50 and older.

Internet use was measured with a simple question: “Do you regularly use the World Wide Web, or the Internet, for sending and receiving e-mails or for any other purpose?” Depression was then gauged with a version of the Center for Epidemiologic Studies Depression Scale.

The rate of depression among study participants who regularly use the Internet was 8.4 percent, which rises to 12.9 percent among those who don’t, “That’s an equivalent of a 33 percent reduction in depression,” said study author Shelia R. Cotton from Michigan State University’s Department of Telecommunication, Information Studies and Media. This reduction was especially notable among those living alone, but of course it’s important to mention that correlation doesn’t prove a causation.

So what could it be about the Web that might cut depression rates by a third? “It’s people using the technology to stay connected to others, to feel part of the community and feel like life hasn’t passed them by,” posits Cotton. In previous studies where Cotton conducted interviews with Internet users in their nineties, “people would say ‘I feel further from the grave,’ which sends a chill down my spine,” said Cotton.

“I feel further from the grave” 

Other social scientists that have looked at the same trend as Cotton have also concluded that the most crucial depression-reducing factor of the Internet is the ability to contact family members from thousands of miles away.

Cotton is currently researching tablet use among older adults and any benefits that particular technology may have towards mental health, but in the meantime she says that older adults “shouldn’t feel like the Internet is beyond them, no matter how old they are. The key is to help adults use the Internet in a beneficial way.”

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