It's estimated that as many as 10 million older Americans suffer from depression, often brought on by feelings of loneliness and isolation.
However, new research – a project that followed the lives of thousands of retired older Americans for six years – found that Internet use among the elderly can reduce the chances of depression by more than 30 percent.
"That's a very strong effect," said Shelia Cotten, a Michigan State University professor of telecommunication, information studies and media who led the project. "And it all has to do with older persons being able to communicate, to stay in contact with their social networks, and just not feel lonely."
Cotten and her colleagues analyzed the data collected by the Health and Retirement Survey, a survey collecting information from more than 22,000 older Americans every two years. This particular sample included more than 3,000 respondents.
"This is one of the largest and most comprehensive surveys of its kind," Cotten said.
Other smaller studies have been inconclusive about the roles Internet use and technology, in general, play in helping people overcome depression.
One way in which this study was different is it took into consideration the subjects' depression levels before they began using the Internet. The researchers wanted to know if past depression affected current depression.
What they found is yes, some people did remain depressed despite Internet use, although it wasn't substantial. "Internet use continues to reduce depression, even when controlling for that prior depressive state," Cotten said.
The researchers also confirmed what was found in other studies that for older people who live alone, Internet use had a greater impact on their levels of depression.
"This study makes significant contributions to the study of Internet use and depression in the older, retired population," Cotten said.
She said it all comes down to how you choose to use your technology. As with most things in life, moderation is best.
"If you sit in front of a computer all day, ignoring the roles you have in life and the things you need to accomplish as part of your daily life, then it's going to have a negative impact on you," Cotten said. "But if you're using it in moderation and you're doing things that enhance your life, then the impacts are likely to be positive in terms of health and well-being."
This research is published in the Journal of Gerontology: Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences.
Other co-authors are George Ford of the Phoenix Center for Advanced Legal and Economic Public Policy Studies; Sherry Ford from the University of Montevallo, Alabama; and Timothy Hale, the Center for Connected Health and Harvard Medical School.