Shelia Cotten is researching the social impact of the Internet on older adults, and her results have been interesting. Fear is the No. 1 obstacle to Internet use for older adults. However, the ability to use the Internet to communicate and keep in touch with immediate family can impact their quality of life in a positive way.

Moving from a small town in North Carolina to the big city of Boston would be a bit of a culture shock for almost anyone.

And for Shelia Cotten, Ph.D., it would’ve been worse if she hadn’t had Internet access.
Cotten, associate professor of sociology, made her move to Beantown 10 years ago to begin her postdoctoral work, leaving behind family, friends and a spouse. “It was me and four cats,” she recalls.

“For a Southern girl from a small town, it was somewhat stressful.”

And while at that time the Internet wasn’t the phenomenon it is now, Cotten had a computer and Internet access, and her primary – and cheapest – method of communication with her family and friends back home was e-mail.

That near-constant communication through the Internet made her think about the social impacts of Internet use, particularly social support and mental health. There is a substantive amount of research available on teens and young adult Internet use, but there hasn’t been much on older adults and the effects on their lives.

In 2006, Cotten assessed Internet use among adults age 50 and older in metro Birmingham; she used a random sample survey and was aided by students in her graduate survey research course. Her findings show that traveling the information highway often has a positive impact on people’s health.

“We found that use of e-mail in particular can help mitigate some of the stress associated with functional limitations older adults may have,” Cotten says.

Raw numbers
Approximately 61 percent of the adults who responded to the survey reported owning a computer, and 60 percent said they use computers; 48 percent of Internet users surveyed go online daily.

The non-users had their reasons. Thirty-one percent believe they have no need to use a computer; 24 percent worry about identity theft and online scams; 20 percent said computers are too complicated and hard to use.

“Older adults often say they feel like they’ve been passed by and they can’t learn it,” Cotten says. “But in reality they can.”

Cotten hopes to teach older adults to use the Internet. A grant proposal under review would enable her to go into 15 area assisted-living facilities to train older adults to use the Internet and then assess the impact on their quality of life.

Cotten says the key is simple training and repetition. Training once and leaving people to remember won’t work, she says, particularly if they have physical limitations.

“I want my research to have a positive impact,” Cotten says. “The research is starting to show that using these technologies can really have a positive impact on well-being, certainly on social support, but also in alleviating stress, decreasing loneliness and decreasing depression.

“Given that stress, loneliness and depression often increase among older adults, interventions are needed to stem these declines in quality of life.”

Family ties
Cotten’s survey shows that fear is clearly the No. 1 obstacle to Internet use. However, the ability to connect with family immediately is helping some to conquer their fear – especially if a recent photo of their grandchildren is just a click away.

“They’ve got to have some motivation or a pull,” Cotten says. “For many, their peers are not online. Family members, particularly children and grandchildren, are the main people pulling older adults online.

“If you can show older adults how it fits into their lives, that’s the key,” she says. “If you can show them how they can communicate with their grandkids, that they can receive and send photos, they can find information on their stocks, or politics or Medicaid or Medicare, they typically will become interested.”