It’s probably fare to say that Facebook gets accused of many things, and indeed various studies have shown that the site tends to cater for our more vacuous desires. A University of Arizona study has however shown that it might have some benefits to our grey matter after all.
The researchers wanted to test whether asking older adults to use Facebook would improve their cognitive performance, whilst also making them feel more socially connected.
The results are pretty positive, and show that the adults performed 25% better on tasks designed to test working memory. The participants in the study were new to the site, having not registered prior to the research. They were asked to become friends with other participants in the group, but no one else, whilst also posting at least one update per day.
A second group were asked to participate in online diary site Penzu.com. This offered the social update facility, but those updates were private, thus removing any social interaction capability.
A final group were told they were on a waiting list for Facebook training, but never actually got round to using the site.
Pensioners like this mental update
The results revealed that the participants, who aged between 68 and 91, did 25% better on mental tests after participating on Facebook after just eight weeks of Facebook usage, whilst the members of the other two groups showed no such improvements.
“The idea evolved from two bodies of research,” lead researcher Janelle Wohltmann says. “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,” she continues.
A social brain boost
Further research is needed to determine the precise course of this boost. For instance, it’s too early to say whether the social interaction improved the pensioners cognitive performance.
However, 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 says.
“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,” she continues.
Recent data from the Pew Internet & American Life Project revealed that around 33% of online pensioners use social networking sites such as Facebook on a regular basis. Whilst it’s unlikely that Facebook can prove a panacea to the mental difficulties experienced with age, it might well provide a nice weapon in the older persons armoury when fighting illnesses such as dementia.