Increased Connectivity

New research from the Mulva Clinic for the Neurosciences characterizes shifts in internet use among older adults during the pandemic

Reviewed by: Jared F. Benge, PhD, ABPP and Robin Hilsabeck, PhD, ABPP
Written by: Lauren Schneider

An elderly woman with short silver hair and blue glasses is sitting on a couch, smiling and laughing at her ipad.

A recent study from researchers in the Comprehensive Memory Center (CMC) at the Mulva Clinic for the Neurosciences measures how older adults adopted internet technologies to perform regular tasks during COVID-19 lockdowns. Published in Work Aging, and Retirement, the paper evaluates survey data from almost 300 adults over 50 in the Georgetown area who were recruited through the clinic’s relationship with the Georgetown Neuroscience Foundation.

This collaboration with a community group marks an opportunity for UT Health Austin practitioners to better understand the populations they serve, according to CMC neuropsychologist Jared F. Benge, PhD, ABPP, who led the study.

Lasting Changes to Online Activity

Participants were surveyed about their use of the following internet enabled behaviors (IEBs) during the pandemic:

  • Video meetings with family and friends
  • Video meetings with social groups
  • Ordering food or groceries online
  • Ordering household goods online
  • Virtual exercise programs
  • Virtual medical appointments
  • Computer/mobile games

Over two-thirds of respondents reported higher IEB use, with online meeting attendance seeing the greatest relative increase. Increased IEB use was associated with less depression, anxiety, and loneliness. Most participants expected to continue using IEBs after the pandemic, especially if they increased IEB use a great deal or sought out technical support online.

These results came as a surprise to Dr. Benge. “I thought most individuals would report that once the pandemic was done, they would want their use of internet-enabled behaviors to go back to baseline levels. But once older adults got in the habit of doing many of these activities, they planned on continuing to use them. That shows the adaptability and emerging technical literacy amongst older adults.”

Understanding a shrinking digital divide

According to Dr. Benge, this research is part of a broader push to understand how the older population utilizes technology. “Technology increasingly permeates major aspects of day-to-day functioning like commerce and communication, but older adults have historically been slower to adopt Internet technologies. There has been a digital divide between people who can utilize digital technologies and those who cannot. That gap is closing, and we want to understand the how and why.”

He notes that the COVID-19 pandemic created unique conditions for studying changes in technology use. In the past, research in this field involved situations where a participant would voluntarily start using a certain technology. “The lockdowns were a unique opportunity to see how older adults would adopt technologies when there weren’t good alternative choices. That decision making under constraint may have implications for other kinds of technology adoptions.”

This paper builds on the CMC’s ongoing research into technology and aging, which focuses on understanding how technology use changes the way older adults function in day to day life, and how these technologies can improve care and compensate for cognitive lapses.

“There’s this myth that older adults do not or are unable to use technology,” says Robin Hilsabeck, PhD, ABPP, another CMC neuropsychologist involved in the study. “This paper showed that under certain circumstances like a pandemic, people of all ages can get online and take care of their business.”

A list of currently-enrolling Comprehensive Memory Center research studies is available on the center’s clinic page.

Information about all research labs, publications, and ongoing clinical trials associated with the Mulva Clinic for the Neurosciences can be viewed on the clinic’s dedicated research page.

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