Problematic Internet Use (PIU) is a widespread phenomenon that is becoming increasingly prevalent in contemporary society and in older adults.
There are many internet-based activities which, if over-used, can impede function and cause distress in people of all ages. We hear a lot about Internet Gaming Disorder in the media, which mainly affects younger adults, but there are online activities that older adults are more susceptible to including, among others:
- online gambling
- social media
- online shopping
- online pornography
Some studies suggest that as we age, we become predisposed to increased rates of certain kinds of PIU over others, including certain kinds of games and streaming of online media. Other studies conclude older adults might consume more pornography, as their ability to engage in sexual intercourse decreases. Which could, in turn, lead to unwanted effects on the quality of their intimate relationships and their mental wellbeing.
Gender seems to be another factor associated with different PIU types. For example, while men in general might be more susceptible to all types of PIU, women tend to be more likely to engage in problematic online shopping and sharing too much personal information via social media. Both genders are susceptible to online scams targeting older adults. According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), in 2021 there were 92,371 older victims of fraud, resulting in $1.7 billion in losses.
Why are older adults a common target for fraudsters? They often have nest eggs, own homes, have excellent credit, and are trusting and polite by nature. With more older adults alone and doing business online, the risk of falling victim to fraud is growing. It’s important to be aware of senior scams so that you can protect yourself or your loved ones from becoming victims.
Common online scams targeting the elderly include, among others:
- Elder romance scams
- The “grandparent” scam.
- Government imposter scams.
- Elder financial abuse.
- False investment schemes.
- Tech support scams.
- Email phishing messages.
- Sweepstakes and lottery scams.
PIU has also been linked to worsening physical health because of its contribution to a sedentary lifestyle and worsening mental health due to suffering consequences such as financial strain (from excessive online spending).
Risk factors for PIU in older populations include Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD), Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) symptoms.
There are multiple public health implications in terms of better understanding the risk of PIU in the elderly, including, among others:
- Older adults may be especially vulnerable to PIU, because of decreased mobility and dwindling social circles, which might lead to increased reliance on online shopping and social media for connecting to others.
- In turn, increased internet use might lead to diminished use of other more adaptive coping mechanisms and at the expense of deepening or maintaining real world relationships.
- As pornography use increases in the elderly, so does the opportunity for compulsive or impulsive use of pornography.
- Diminishing cognitive reserve and executive function in the elderly may be predispose these individuals to engage in more PIU due to impaired impulse control.
- Patients with Parkinson’s disease who take agonists might be at higher risk of PIU.
- There is evidence that increased PIU may be increasing loneliness in older adults, which in turn has been connected to increased incidence of suicide.
Because certain platforms and activities might be more likely to lead to the development of PIU, targeting the delivery of online services and platforms to the elderly may positively affect public health.
We hope this information is helpful to you in the important work you do as a family caregiver.
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