For years, social media was seen as a new toy for the young and hip. But as Facebook's record-setting IPO has shown, social platforms have grown far beyond their early use of documenting beer pong tournaments. Social media is a cultural and economic behemoth, and it is the propelling force behind the meteoric rise of smartphones. For young and old alike, social is the thing. And with a global population that will include two billion over 60 in the next couple of decades, even the all-mighty Facebook will no doubt respond to the aging population marketplace.
While we many think the digital world is for the young, there is plenty of new data that shows adults and older generations are digitally connected. According to Edison Research, "Americans age 45 and older represent the largest percentage increase in social media usage in the past year, now up to 38 percent (from 31 percent in 2011)." Another study claims that it "is noteworthy that social media isn't dominated by the youngest, often most tech-savvy generations" but by "middle-aged people." What this trend amounts to, in the words of Pew Research, is "the graying of social networking."
Yet, despite the significant and extending reach that social media has had into the lives of adults, we have still failed to develop its most important potential: Social media can be a great tool to enable older adults to be far more socially connected to their worlds. Too often, the importance of social connectivity is absent from conversations about healthy aging. And too often discussions of "aging and connectivity" ignore social needs to focus on technical, traditional medical needs.
Dr. Mark Lachs, co-chief of Cornell University's Division of Geriatrics, has a body of fascinating research that highlights how social connections are a critical component to healthy aging: "People talk about growing their nest egg for retirement. One of the other things you should be growing is a large circle of people with whom you interact." What Dr. Lachs is teaching is that mental health impacts physical health, and that aging adults need to care for their social lives with as much attention as they do their physical lives. The two depend upon each other, and healthy aging builds from both.
For all of Lachs' insight, however, we have yet to open a new conversation about how social media can become a tool that connects older adults. In a 21st century where many "seniors" live increasingly isolated lives, we need create social media tools to keep them connected. Social media needs to enable older, tech-handicapped adults to use social platforms to stay integrated in the world.
Thus, for example, the pioneering work by Intel, and another Facebook like start-up, Alliance Health Networks to keep seniors healthy and active through connectivity could force the issue: how can these initiatives open new avenues for aging populations to build healthy social lives? How can "social health" become a key goal of technological innovation?
To be sure, the answers to these questions are complex. Social media, as we conceive it today, must be leveraged through a more coordinated effort among technologists, gerontologists, businesses, and policy makers to meet the social and cognitive needs of the rapidly aging global population. Recent research continues to show that active minds are healthy minds, and social stimulation cannot be overlooked.
If we can begin to include social connectivity as a chief component of healthy aging, we will see two important payoffs. First, and most obviously, older adults will have new channels through which they can stay socially connected. By extension, this will enable healthy, active, and productive aging into later stages of life. Second, we will create a new avenue for research and business development that unites generations. For the most part, the onus of creating these technologies will fall upon the young. It is no secret that Silicon Valley is dominated by Generation X and Millennials. Such collaboration between generations can help bridge the "young" and "old" gap by giving them shared purpose. As I have suggested before, prosperity in the 21st century can only come through intergenerational cooperation.
If the spring of 2012 will be remembered as the Season of the Facebook IPO, let's use the occasion to open up new, much-needed conversations about how this remarkable platform of social media can enable healthy, active, and productive aging. It is regrettable that the "social" element of healthy aging has been under-appreciated. As Dr. Lachs and boy-wonder Zuckerberg have shown, social connections are integral to complete, healthy lives.
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