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Regular internet use shown to improve mental health in older people

New research suggests that the use of the internet on a regular basis is linked to better mental health in older people.

Conducted by researchers at University College London (UCL), the study looked at the behaviour of more than 9,000 people over the age of 50 across the span of six years. It found that those who used the internet daily had a higher life satisfaction than those who did not. Also, the positive impact on mental wellbeing was most notable among those using the internet to communicate with others. 

Asked to make their life satisfaction on a scale from five at the lowest to 35 at the highest, participants in the study using the internet daily reported an average satisfaction of 26.12, compared to 24.44 or those who used it less often.

The research also indicated that the wealthiest users were the most likely to go online daily and those in the higher educational and occupational groups experienced a larger positive impact on their mental health.

The findings in the study are in contrast to research into internet use among young people, which often raises the concern that spending excessive time online can have a negative impact on mental health and wellbeing.

Dr Stephen Jivraj, the report’s senior author, said: “While some studies suggest that spending an excessive amount of time on the internet correlates with negative mental health in younger age samples, our research suggests that more should be done to encourage internet use among older adults, especially as a tool for building and maintaining social ties to improve wellbeing.”

To help address these concerns, Jivraj suggested initiatives such as installing public Wi-Fi in areas frequented by older people and in areas where usage may be low, due to barriers to access and digital exclusion, could be among possible solutions. 

Co-author Dr Shaun Scholes urged the Government to create more schemes for older people to learn digital skills. “It’s important to recognise that many older people have not learnt to use the internet as part of their job or education,” he said.

“While there isn’t one simple intervention that can increase internet usage in older age, we do recommend that policymakers encourage providers to consider adapting their products and interfaces to be more age-friendly.”

The report recommends encouraging older people to use the internet to socialise as a way of helping to reduce the impact of social isolation and loneliness on mental health. It said that while around 56 per cent of older adults go online every day, over a quarter have never used the internet.

The researchers also urge hardware and software manufacturers to be more sensitive to the needs of older, more novice users and those with impairments when creating their products.

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