7/25/2023 | By Terri L. Jones

As enjoyable and useful as it may be, social media is not all likes and smiley faces. Seniors Guide explores the risks of social media and how to guard against the dangers.

Several years ago, many of 80-year-old Ginny’s friends had passed away and she needed a social outlet. Her daughter, Tracie, gave her mother an iPad, internet service, and a Facebook account. Although Ginny had no computer experience (she still had a flip phone!), she caught onto Facebook quickly and started commenting, posting selfies, and playing games every day – many times a day, in fact. At any dinner or gathering, she always insisted that her friends and family “put a picture on my iPad” (translation: post a photo from the event on her Facebook page). Ginny was hooked!

A new senior craze

Ginny isn’t alone. According to Pew Research Center, the number of Americans 65 and older using social media has increased fourfold since 2010. Fifty percent of those surveyed use Facebook and 49 percent YouTube, by far the most popular social media platforms for this demographic.

Seniors enjoy social media for much the same reasons as other age groups: staying in touch and reconnecting with friends and family, finding emotional support, sharing interests, and acquiring new information. However, there is a downside to this type of social interaction. When it starts to replace actual face-to-face contact, social media can exacerbate the loneliness that it’s intended to ease.

In fact, U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy, who recently called attention to the epidemic of loneliness in this country, recommended reforming digital environments as one strategy for dealing with this epidemic. Murthy advised: “We must critically evaluate our relationship with technology and ensure that how we interact digitally does not detract from meaningful and healing connection with others.”

One of the other big risks of social media, experienced by people of all ages and genders, is FOMO, the fear of missing out. When social media shows us exciting activities that our friends and family are engaged in, we can easily begin to feel left out, to feel that we’re missing out. FOMO has been linked to depression, anxiety, and fear of negative evaluation.

Not everyone is your friend!

A man using a tablet. For article on the risks of social media. Photo by Nicolasmenijes

While Ginny’s family was pleased by her engagement with Facebook, they were also concerned about how naïve she was about its dangers. With all the quizzes and games she played, strangers she friended, and personal information she shared, they feared that she was making herself vulnerable to hackers, scammers, and others with ill intent. Trusting the wrong post could put her in jeopardy, like one man who lost his life savings in an Instagram scam.

One Canadian senior nonprofit advises family members: “It’s important to share your knowledge of social media to make sure your senior loved ones know which scams and traps to watch out for and make sure to check in regularly to ensure they aren’t unknowingly connecting with people they shouldn’t be.”

Also be sure you and your loved ones have strong privacy settings on all accounts.

Related: Beware of Technology Scams!

Your health could even be at risk

Of course, simply scrolling through your social media feed won’t hurt you; however, the lifestyle changes that result from heavy use of social media, could. For example, sitting for long periods in front of a screen – and not getting up and moving – can be detrimental to cardiovascular health as well as mobility and overall strength. Overuse of smartphones and tablets can also cause tech neck, spine and neck pain caused by too much time spent looking down at the device. These risks were definitely a concern for Ginny, who has both heart and back problems.

If you use your electronic devices right before bed, the stimulating blue light (and even the content you read) can keep you awake.

You may also be more likely to snack than eat balanced meals, causing your nutrition to suffer.

Not the best source of information

It’s natural to prefer content that supports your preferences and beliefs. Social media takes advantage of this natural tendency, known as confirmation bias, by feeding you a steady diet of ideas and information that reinforces what you already believe. In turn, your views become more and more polarized, which is the root of divisiveness.

To combat this divisiveness, it’s important to deliberately seek out media sources with opinions that are different from your own. At the same time, avoid getting sucked into online disagreements, which can elevate stress and raise blood pressure.

And always take whatever you read with a grain of salt, remembering the importance of critical thinking skills. Just because it’s on social media does not mean it’s true. There’s a plethora of disinformation out there, and by sharing or even liking it, you’re perpetuating lies and incendiary content.

Finding new outlets

Rather than spending your entire afternoon hooked to your screen, try to find new ways to spend some of that time. Tracie has started taking Ginny to bingo games once a week and is encouraging her to play Sudoku and do crosswords offline instead of taking those Facebook quizzes.

But Ginny’s family has found the best way to distract her from social media is by remembering the real meaning of “social” – calling her more often and paying her more visits. However, when they do, they still can’t forget to take that selfie and “put it on her iPad”!

Terri L. Jones

Terri L. Jones has been writing educational and informative topics for the senior industry for over ten years, and is a frequent and longtime contributor to Seniors Guide.

Terri Jones