Posting and commenting on social networking sites, such as Facebook, may help older adults feel more empowered and less isolated, a study led by an Indian origin scientist has found.
Older adults who posted a lot of personal stories on the social networking site felt a higher sense of community, and the more they customised their profiles, the more in control they felt, said S Shyam Sundar, a professor at the Pennsylvania State University in the US.
The study, published in the journal New Media & Society, suggests that using social media is not a uniform experience that is either all bad, or all good, but offers multiple functions for diverse users.
"People tend to think of Facebook as a black box that either has an overall positive effect or a negative effect, but what distinguishes this study is that it makes an effort to go in and see what people do in Facebook - and that's what matters," said Sundar.
"So, in other words, social media, by itself, is neither good, nor bad, but it's how you use it," he said.
The researchers recruited 202 participants - 79.7 per cent female and 20.3 per cent male - who were 60 years and older and used Facebook for at least a year.
For older adults, who may be less mobile, Facebook and similar social networking sites could play a critical role in easing isolation and making them feel like they are part of a large community, according to the researchers.
"This is important, especially for older adults who might be aging in place, because they have mobility constraints that limit their ability to socialise," said Sundar.
"These are more fine-grained findings that say certain things you do on Facebook can give you gratifications, like fulfilling the needs for activity, having interactions with others, having a greater sense of agency, and building community," he said.
Eun Hwa Jung, an assistant professor at National University of Singapore, who worked with Sundar, said older adults are increasingly adopting social media, in general, and are a growing number of Facebook's total membership.
Given the widespread diffusion of Facebook in this group, understanding what gratifications older adults derive from particular technological features helps designers develop better user interfaces suited for them, Jung said.
"It can improve online interactions between individuals from different generations," she added.
According to Sundar, developers of social media networks should consider the needs of this growing group of users.
For example, they should create features that enhance the identity of older adults while simultaneously protecting their privacy.
More features that encourage older adults to exchange and visualise messages with others could also make sites more interactive for this group....