Maybe you’ve seen charts that show how social media is eating away at Americans’ attention spans. That’s partly because on a site like Facebook, there’s always a new post popping up in front of your eyes to distract you.
But no-one has looked at the effects of social media of older people’s brains – until now.
Preliminary findings from research conducted by a team at the University of Arizona’s Aging and Cognition Lab suggests that learning and using Facebook can help boost seniors’ cognitive functioning.
The research was inspired by previous studies showing that older people who stay more cognitively engaged maintain or boost cognitive function; and those who are less lonely or have more social support do better cognitively. “We thought that using Facebook could be a way to learn a new skill and stay more socially connected. The combination of boosting these two things at the same time could have larger effects,” Janelle Wohltmann, a graduate student in clinical psychology who led the research, told Senior Planet.
The team followed three small groups of people 61 to 86 years old. They gave one group three two-hour Facebook lessons over a period of a week; a second group had six lessons in how to use the personal-diary site Pengu (Pengu has no social component); and a third group was invited to sign up for the Facebook class waitlist. After that first week was up, members of the Facebook group used their new skills to stay in touch with each other on the social network for 7 weeks, while the Pengu group wrote short personal diary entries daily.
At the beginning of the study, the team gave the seniors cognitive tests and asked them to fill out a questionnaire about their social connections and health. At the end of the seven weeks, they compared the results and found that the people in the Facebook group had experienced a marked improvement in cognitive functioning – and especially in the speed at which they processed new information and in how their brains dealt with new information that asked them to shift attention.
Wohltmann emphasized that these findings are preliminary. The team plans to follow up in six months and look at the types of information seniors share – personal or practical – as well as the extent to which online connections lead to offline ones. Primarily, the team wants to find out if the gains in cognitive functioning hold up over the course of six months.
How Facebook Boosts Cognitive Functioning
Wohltmann’s guess is that Facebook is effective in improving older people’s “mental updating” skills – their agility in handling new information. “The fact that on Facebook, new information is continually being posted,” she told Senior Planet, “means that you need to stay on the post you’re reading while something else appears above it and then shift your attention to the new post. It requires that you engage with this mental updating process.”
On the other criterion – social connections – the Facebook group also showed gains. Wohltmann says the participants in this group used the social network to plan an end-of-study lunch meeting; one participant was discovered by a best friend from high school whom she hadn’t seen for 50 years. And while most of the posting during the first seven weeks were practical rather than personal, “some people shared things about themselves and were finding commonalities,” Wohltmann said.
What’s your experience with Facebook? Do you use it? Did you find it hard to learn? Let us know in the comments box below.