Seniors’ ‘Fun Online’ Has Its Benefits
Tue, 10/25/2011
Special To The Jewish Week
Ben-Gurion University gerontologist Galit Nimrod looks at the nexus between Internet use and successful aging in seniors.
Ben-Gurion University gerontologist Galit Nimrod looks at the nexus between Internet use and successful aging in seniors.

If you think playing games and chatting online is just for young people, think again. A new study out of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev indicates that the young at heart, too, can benefit greatly from spending time in cyberspace, especially by engaging in what researchers have termed “fun online.”

Galit Nimrod, senior lecturer at BGU’s department of communication studies and research fellow at its Center for Multidisciplinary Research in Aging, had previously done research showing that “fun online” was the most dominant component of senior online communities. “The biggest surprise in the previous content analysis study was that I found that the main subject in seniors’ online communities was not discussion of retirement, health or family — as might be expected,” the researcher told The Jewish Week. But this time she wanted to delve deeper into the kinds of fun that was being had to better understand its qualities and how it might contribute to successful aging.

Gerontologists have long known that high levels of physical health, cognitive health and social engagement contribute to successful aging. In our hi-tech and globally connected world, online senior communities contribute to the achievement of the latter two when real-life networks begin to fall apart as elderly people’s friends begin to pass away or failing health makes it difficult to get together with others.

“I only wish Facebook and Twitter had been around when my mother was alive,” said 71-year-old retiree Ted Roseman of Ottawa, Canada. “These things help my wife Susan and I keep in touch with family and old and new friends. My mother would have loved these applications. She was sharp until the very end, and they would have given her life more scope,” he reflected.

Nimrod entered the field of gerontology precisely because of her concerns about seniors’ wellbeing. “When I started thinking about doctoral studies, a friend of my parents retired. He had a very successful career, and felt ready to retire, but having no activity alternatives for work, he became so depressed that three months after his retirement he needed formal care and medications,” the she recalled. “I then realized that post retirement leisure may be a significant challenge, and that’s what made me interested in leisure in later life.”

Many people assume that the best kind of activity for retirees is what is termed “serious leisure.” That kind of leisure is characterized by “considerable commitment, effort and perseverance and associated with many enduring psychological rewards,” as Nimrod’s study explains. Long-term volunteer jobs or participating in a community theater troupe are examples of serious leisure.

But Nimrod emphasized in her study, “The Fun Culture in Seniors’ Online Communities,” in the May 2010 issue of The Gerontologist journal, that the less structured, more immediately rewarding “casual leisure” like online gaming and chatting can be equally important and far more common.

Nimrod used an ethnography (in this case, “netnography”) approach to analyze a year’s worth of data – 50,000 posts - for six leading senior online communities for English speakers from the US, Canada, Australia and the UK. Most of the posts turned out to be part of online social games of cognitive, associative and creative varieties. Jokes, funny stories and videos were far less common in the data.

Nimrod sifted through the data to look carefully at what the seniors were up to online, and, equally importantly, how they were interacting with one another while engaged in the various games they were playing. She found that the main subjects the seniors posted about were sex, gender differences, aging, grandparenting, politics, faith and alcohol — with the first two being the most popular.

Posts about aging often also related to sex, and vice versa, and many employed humor. For example, one post titled  “Lovemaking tips for seniors,” included suggestions such as: “Put on your glasses”;  “Double check that your partner is actually in bed with you”; and “Set timer for 3 minutes, in case you doze off in the middle.” The anonymity, invisibility and status neutralization afforded by online communities could very well explain the popularity of sex jokes such as these.

There were some unexpected revelations for Nimrod as she studied the data. “The fact that the games were not competitive was surprising. It seems that people do not participate in order to satisfy any ego-related needs. They are there for the sheer fun and for the company.” And although Nimrod was expecting some level of humor, she was bowled over by just how funny so many of the posts were. “Many of the posts are just hilarious. I never laughed as much as I did while analyzing this study’s data,” she recalled. “Just reading the posts was so enjoyable, that I’m sure that taking an active part in the discussion is a very positive experience,” she suggested.

Nimrod looked at participatory styles, which included what she called “selective timing.” More seniors participated in the online communities on weekday afternoons than at other times of the day or on weekends. In addition, people took vacations from the communities during the winter holiday season (presumably to spend time with children and grandchildren), with many coming back or joining for the first time in January.

Roseman and his 68-year-old wife, on the other hand, are online constantly, checking their Facebook accounts and Twitter feeds at least three or four times daily. The each have iPads, and Roseman expressed concern to The Jewish Week about whether there would be sufficient free WiFi access in Israel on their upcoming first visit there. He likes to be frequently updated not only on what “friends” are doing, but also on breaking news and subsequent analysis and opinion shared electronically.

Nimrod also found that participants used expressive style in their writing (including multiple punctuation marks and emoticons) and created personalized online characters for themselves, even if they chose not to reveal private or identifiable information.

These online communities exhibited characteristics similar to those of real-life ones. Levels of participation and interpersonal dynamics varied, with some people emerging as “regulars,” others as “occasional participants,” and still others as “lurkers.” Community norms evidently developed over time, and relationships between participants formed.

The “regulars” clearly have the potential to benefit most from the self-expression, demonstration of abilities and knowledge, and cognitive exercise that the online games provide. “Therefore, as suggested by previous research on older adults’ play,” Nimrod wrote, “such involvement could lead to many enduring rewards, such as mental fitness, constructive use of leisure time, increased feelings of success and achievement and improved self- esteem.”

But she also feels that the lurkers, which the majority of the senior participants chose to be, can gain from logging into these communities. It’s more of a passive activity, like watching TV, for these older adults, but they still get something out of the experience. Roseman simply likes being online because “you’re part of a community without having to exert a lot of effort.”

Nimrod, whose focus is on casual leisure, does not advocate against serious leisure pursuits. “[This] study does not argue for deemphasizing the importance of serious leisure in later life, but rather suggests that well-being may be enhanced by casual leisure, as well. Taking this one step forward, I would say that like anything else in life, a balance between the two might be the best. This balance is a personal matter. There are no prescriptions,” she offered.

But her study, however, does suggest that buying a computer and hooking up to the Internet may be just what the doctor ordered. “Humor, play and good friends may help us all age gracefully. However, they are not always available. The online communities provide immediate company of absolutely great people, with whom one can chat, laugh and cry,” Nimrod said. “So it’s worth giving them a try.”