For older adults looking to sharpen their mental abilities, Facebook may be the way to go, according to preliminary psychology research which suggests that men and women older than 65 who learn to use Facebook could see a boost in cognitive function.
Janelle Wohltmann, a graduate student in the Univesity of Arizona department of psychology, set out to see whether teaching older adults to use the popular social networking site could help improve their cognitive performance and make them feel more socially connected.
Her preliminary findings were shared at the International Neuropsychological Society Annual Meeting in Hawaii, and show that older adults, after learning to use Facebook, performed about 25 percent better on tasks designed to measure their ability to continuously monitor and to quickly add or delete the contents of their working memory – "updating" in social science parlance.
Wohltmann, her research adviser Betty Glisky, professor and head of the department of psychology, and a team of undergraduate and graduate research assistants showed 14 older adults who had either never used Facebook (or used it less than once a month) how to add friends and told them to become Facebook friends only with those in their training group. They were asked to post on the site at least once a day.
A second group of 14 non-Facebook using seniors instead was taught to use an online diary site, Penzu.com, in which entries are kept private, with no social sharing component. They were asked to make at least one entry a day, of no more than three to five sentences to emulate the shortness of messages that Facebook users typically post.
The third group of 14 was told they were on a "wait-list" for Facebook training, which they never actually completed.
Prior to learning any new technologies, study participants, who ranged in age from 68 to 91, completed a series of questionnaires and neuropsychological tests measuring social variables, such as their levels loneliness and social support, as well as their cognitive abilities. The assessments were done again at the end of the study, eight weeks later.
In the follow-ups, those who had learned to use Facebook performed about 25 percent better than they did at the start of the study on tasks designed to measure their mental updating abilities. Participants in the other groups saw no significant change in performance.
The Facebook study was designed to duplicate existing evidence about how learning new tasks can help older adults with overall cognitive function, as well as research suggesting a possible link between social connectedness and cognitive performance.
"The idea evolved from two bodies of research," she said. "One, there is evidence to suggest that staying more cognitively engaged – learning new skills, not just becoming a couch potato when you retire but staying active – leads to better cognitive performing. It's kind of this 'use it or lose it' hypothesis. There's also a large body of literature showing that people who are more socially engaged, are less lonely, have more social support and are more socially integrated are also doing better cognitively in older age."
Further analysis is needed to determine whether using Facebook made participants feel less lonely or more socially connected. Likewise, further analysis is needed to determine whether, or by how much, Facebook's social aspect contributed to improvements in cognitive performance. Wohltmann suspects that the complex nature of the Facebook interface, compared to the online diary site, was largely responsible for Facebook users' improved performance.
"The Facebook interface is actually quite complex. The big difference between the online diary and Facebook is that when you create a diary entry, you create the entry, you save it and that's all you see, versus if you're on Facebook, several people are posting new things, so new information is constantly getting posted," she said. "You're seeing this new information coming in, and you need to focus on the new information and get rid of the old information, or keep it in mind if you want to go back and reference it later, so you have to constantly update what's there in your attention."
Participants in the study, who had an average age of 79, represent a demographic whose social media behavior has not been closely examined.
"Facebook is obviously a huge phenomenon in our culture," Wohltmann said. "There's starting to be more research coming out about how younger adults use Facebook and online social networking, but we really don't know very much at all about older adults, and they actually are quite a large growing demographic on Facebook, so I think it's really important to do the research to find out."