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Can social media mediate the effects of chronic pain and depression?

A recent study in the Journal of Gerontology examined how online social activity may alleviate chronic pain and depression in seniors.


Chronic pain is an increasingly serious concern among health professionals. Studying and measuring pain is elusive and the consequences may range far and wide. An estimated US$600 billion are exerted towards dealing with patient pain every year. This figure is greater than the amount spent on cancer or heart disease.

Pain can lead to depression and other medical conditions. One concern is that people with chronic pain tend to socialize much less outside of their own homes. In an attempt to lessen the exacerbation of pain, older adults may isolate themselves, reducing both social and physical activities. Lowered levels of social participation have been shown to increase the likelihood of mortality and other diseases, especially mental illnesses.

A problem thus arises:  how is it possible to increase patient activity when they have serious physical impairments due to pain? A novel study examined the possibility of online social activity to counteract the effects of chronic pain and depression.

Depression is the most common mental disorder among seniors

Depression is the most common mental disorder among older adults. It is highly likely to occur together with pain symptoms. The researchers used data from participants in the National Health and Aging Trends Study to determine the potential of online socialization on buffering the effects of pain and depression. The total number of participants, as published by The Journal of Gerontology, was 3401, all aged 65 and older.

People with chronic pain are less likely to participate in face-to-face interactions

Firstly, the study found evidence that, indeed, individuals with pain were less likely to participate in social activities that require face-to-face interactions. The results indicate that mainly formal social interactions were limited, such as clubs or classes. For the most part, individuals did continue to interact in informal settings, such as visiting friends and family. It is hypothesized that informal interactions can better accommodate the needs of these individuals, such as with transportation.

Nonetheless, only formal interactions were shown to reduce the levels of depression in the sample. Thus, formal interactions are highly important when it comes to the well-being of older individuals.

Limited mobilities make online participation a viable option

Thus, the question remains, how can we increase the participation of these individuals in formal activities? As many have limited mobility, it remains a difficult question to solve. Online participation, however, seems to be a viable option.

The researchers determined that, indeed, participation in such online social activities did compensate for reduced, real-world interactions. This was especially true when it comes to the effects of pain on depression and other mental health conditions. Online social activity is one way to ensure that older adults remain active and social even though they suffer from pain.

Barriers to implementing online strategies

Nevertheless, barriers do exist in terms of implementing this strategy. These barriers include cognitive impairments and “computer anxiety”, which may deter or prevent this population from reaping the benefits of online social interactions. Furthermore, offline interactions remain the best option for reducing the effects of pain on depression, and a combination of the two strategies is recommended by the researchers.

Further studies should focus on determining what kind of online interactions are beneficial, recording specific activities as they are used by individuals. The current study also did not investigate how pain severity may affect these results. It is possible that different levels of pain may react differently to the implementation of these strategies.

Still, it is important to note that online social interaction does promote better mental health in older adults with pain. It is thus recommended that these individuals supplement what reduction they experience in offline interactions with online ones.

Written by Maor Bernshtein

Reference:Ang, Shannon, and Tuo-Yu Chen. “Going Online to Stay Connected: Online Social Participation Buffers the Relationship Between Pain and Depression.” The Journals of Gerontology: Series B, 2018, doi:10.1093/geronb/gby109.

Maor Bernshtein
Maor Bernshtein
Maor is currently working on his BSc in psychology from York University in Toronto, Canada. He is interested in psychological research and likes to analyze results and apply them to everyday life. Maor has previously volunteered for The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health and is passionate about bringing psychological knowledge back to the people. He hopes that others can benefit from psychological insights through his work and improve their overall life and well-being.


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