Seniors are using screens to make up for lost human connections
Much is made about the amount of time Millennials and Generation Z spends with smartphones and other devices. However, it turns out young people aren't the demographic who spend the most time this way. According to Nielsen data published by The Economist, screen time is higher for America's elderly, who spend a larger portion of their days with their eyes pointed at devices.
Nielsen found that Americans ages 65 and over spend nearly 10 hours per day in front of screens. That's 12 percent more than Americans between the ages of 35 and 49 and a considerable one-third more usage than people 18 to 34. The findings fall in line with a recent survey published by Pew Research earlier this year that found older Americans are spending nearly 30 minutes more per day on screen time. Pew found that older people spend as much as half of their leisure time in front of screens.
How the elderly spend their time with screens
The adoption of smartphones, computers and the internet broadly is up among the elderly — nearly three-fourths of people 65 and older use the internet in 2018, compared to just 14 percent in 2000, according to Pew Research. Nielsen found that smartphone use among the elderly is up more than seven times what it was just four years ago. (By comparison, Millennials have increased their time with smartphones by less than one hour per day during the same time period.) But the biggest contributor to screen time among older Americans is television.
According to Nielsen, elderly people spend on average seven and a half hours per day with their televisions. A significant chunk of that time, it should be noted, is simply having the TV playing in the background while they do other things. But regardless if their eyes are directly on the display or simply glancing at it between other activities, America's elderly are spending a significant amount of time watch TV and interacting with other screens.
Why are the elderly spending so much time with screens?
While there's surely some temptation to revel in the irony of older generations telling younger ones that they spend too much time with screens only to turn around and spend even more time with them, the fact of the matter is that older people are turning to screens because of loneliness and isolation. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, more than 11 million elderly Americans live alone, and the likelihood of being without other human companionship increases the older a person gets. For all of the reasons one may imagine — retirement, the loss of friends and peers, physical limitations that restrict a person's activities — older people often have fewer social experiences. This can be mitigated to some degree by younger family members providing company and care, but that is becoming more difficult. According to a report published by the AARP, there is an increasing number of elderly people who do not have adult children they can rely on and more caregivers will need to be available for our aging population.
Without those interactions, seniors experience increased feelings of isolation. According to the most recent National Poll on Healthy Aging conducted by the University of Michigan, as many as one in three seniors experience loneliness and 27 percent said they sometimes feel isolated. Being cut off from people and experiencing social isolation is particularly devastating in older people and results in an increased risk of mortality in people ages 52 and older, according to research published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). Even just feeling lonely, whether a person truly is isolated or not, can have adverse health risks. A study published in Heart found that feelings of loneliness can increase a person's likelihood of experiencing heart attacks or strokes. Those feelings have also been linked to diminished mental states, poor cognitive performance, and increased risk of dementia. It's also worth noting that these issues are even more likely to affect marginalized communities. LGBTQ seniors are twice as likely to live alone, according to Services and Advocacy for GLBT Elders.
Can TV replace social interactions?
As a way to deal with those feelings and real experiences of social isolation, seniors often turn to TV. United Kingdom-based organization Volunteering Matters reported in 2014 that about two-fifths of elderly people said that their television is their main form of company. There is some research to suggest that people are able to form connections with familiar characters and personalities on TV, which can provide some sense of belonging and combat feelings of rejection.
That isn't to suggest that television is a suitable replacement for social interaction. On the whole, excessive consumption of television can have adverse effects on people, especially the elderly. It can hurt their memory, lead to physical stagnation and increased levels of obesity and generally produce negative feelings. A 2010 study conducted by the University of California, San Diego found that while elderly people spend more time than any other demographic watching TV, they enjoy it less than younger people. Instead, they would rather spend their time partaking in social activities, which produce much greater feelings of happiness for them. However, when those activities aren't available or are too difficult to access, it's common for older Americans to simply turn on their TV.
The higher levels of screen time among elderly Americans isn't an act of hypocrisy, trying to scold young people for being obsessed with their phones while they sit in front of the TV all day. It's the result of increased social isolation with a lack of alternatives to turn to. Television isn't the best replacement for real social interactions, but it serves enough of a purpose that taking it away or making it more difficult to access — much like the U.K. is doing by taking away subsidized TV licenses that were provided to the elderly — would be a cruel act. To help combat these growing sense of loneliness that is plaguing senior populations, there are plenty of volunteer programs where you can lend your time. Provide some much needed social experiences for older generations and you can bring down the amount of screen time spent by both you and them.