Broadening online worlds could help maintain and improve cognitive abilities in old age.
Conor Friedersdorf recently put forward an interesting question: At what age will you stop using Facebook? Many of the college students, now twentysomethings, who made up Facebook's original user base may already be feeling the fatigue. But it may be through other groups of people, for whom the site was never specifically intended but have nonetheless been discovering it in droves, that Facebook may find new ways of remaining relevant.
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Janelle Wohltmann, a grad student in psychology at the University of Arizona, has been teaching the 65-plus crowd how to use the social network, in order to determine ways in which using Facebook might benefit them. She gathered a small group of adults, aged 68 to 91, who were either unfamiliar with Facebook or who had set up a profile, but rarely used it. Like a protective parent, she asked them to limit their network, only friending other members of their training group, but she also required that they post updates at least once a day.
Meanwhile, another 14 participants were asked to post short entries to a private online diary site, and yet another group -- the control -- were told they were on a waiting list for the Facebook lessons.
Before joining Facebook, all of her subjects participated in a series of tests and questionnaires designed to measure both social variables and cognitive ability. At the end of eight weeks, they were re-tested.
Her analysis is ongoing, but Wohltmann has already presented one finding of the study: the adults who spent the two months on Facebook showed a 25 percent improvement in their working memory. Specifically, when confronted with a continuous stream of information, like random words or letters, they were better able to focus on what the researchers told them was relevant. Being able to monitor such information and quickly add or delete the contents of their working memory, is known as "mental updating ability."
The diary writers showed no improvement on the working memory tests, which became progressively difficult; nor did those on the wait list. What Wohltmann and her adviser are now looking at is how much Facebook's social component may have contributed to their findings. Some research has shown that people who are more socially engaged in old age also tend to do better cognitively. It could also be that the relative complexity of Facebook compared to an online diary -- keeping track of everyone's status updates, comments, photos, etc. -- gave the participants more of a mental workout.
Integral to better understanding these preliminary results, of course, will be seeing whether the participants reported feeling greater levels of social support, and less loneliness, after joining the social network. Looking at just how often the participants posted updates and interacted with other users will also be an important factor to consider. Wohltmann told me she plans to pursue the possible connection between social connectedness and increased cognitive ability.
Whether or not one directly causes the other, anything that's helping older adults to avoid both isolation and cognitive decline is worth promoting. And Wohltmann said she had to turn away a lot of potential participants because they were already active Facebook users, meaning this is something a lot of people may already be figuring out for themselves.