When you write a blog about the “lifestyle” side of retirement, part of the regular discipline is to trawl academic research in the areas of psychology, gerontology, and cognitive neuroscience for news that might interest readers. I call this category of blog post “I Read It; You Don’t Have To” and this label is partly tongue-in-cheek—there’s a lot of valuable information in scholarly articles but, to put it mildly, much academic writing can have a narcotic effect on the reader. (Believe me, I’m doing you a favor by giving it to you in plain English.) It’s better just to ignore articles that are poorly argued and crafted, but sometimes you come across a specimen that’s compelling because of its awfulness, like watching someone slip on a banana peel in slow motion. One such example is a recent article called “Social Media and Older Adults: Understanding Cognitive Training and Social Network.” After you’ve read it you find yourself scratching your head and asking big questions like: What does this article mean? Why does it exist? I’m not sure I can answer those questions, but I’ll put some quotes from the article under the microscope to see what we can see…
#1 – “…there are unique challenges when the older population—age 65 and older-—accesses technology. These technology challenges are beyond those of new learning experienced by the digital natives. The millennial generation, who are digital natives, use computers daily in the ubiquitous age of digital technology and often interact socially and professionally using technology. Older adults are people who were born before the digital age and adopted technology later in life, which fits the category of digital immigrants. These immigrants may not have the resources to access social media, such as a handheld device, internet connectivity, or a resource for technology training to name a few.”
Seriously? Jargon (“digital natives”) and bad grammar (“older adults are people… which fits…”) are rampant, but this passage’s biggest offense is stereotyping. “Older adults” come off sounding like a Stone Age people; the authors haven’t actually met any of them in person but they sure are peculiar and fascinating!
Hang On To Your Wallet
#2 – “Researchers on aging have found that brain exercise and social integration lower the risk of depressive symptoms and dementia in older adults. Furthermore, brain exercise and social integration reduce the risk of cognitive decline and health-related quality of life issues. The habitual activities found in the use of social media might be a source of developing cognitive speed of processing and social interaction in older adults. Hence, an investigation through the theoretical lens of social inclusion may produce findings that social media has a positive effect on the lifestyle and quality of life decisions made by older adults.”
First sentence, check. Second sentence, check, but wait… what does “quality of life issues” mean? Third sentence, now we’re getting to one of my pet peeves–computer-based “brain training.” This paper isn’t research but, rather, an essay proposing what the authors believe will be a fruitful direction for future research by others. Beneath this, however, it feels like the authors’ goal is to gin up support for the notion that using social media will stave off Alzheimer’s Disease. Maybe this will be shown to be true, but it feels like a pretty tortured path, and I can picture the research already. It will compare older people who use social media with those who don’t on several common measures of cognitive ability, and social media use will be shown to correlate with better scores on these tests. But it won’t compare social media use with other “behaviors” like chatting with a friend while taking a vigorous walk together, another potent recipe for “brain exercise and social integration.” Hang on to your wallet: there’s an entire industry out there trying to get us to pay for cognitive and social stimulation that’s available all around us for free.
Look For The Bare Necessities
#3 – “Furthermore, extant results show that education and age are not related benefits of training…” and “While necessities are the basics of life, sometimes a simple contribution to an older adult’s day is grasping the concept of a computer application.”
I really don’t know what to say. Were the authors under deadline pressure? Or is this sort of gobbledygook their natural writing style? And who knew that “necessities are the basics of life”? (Other than Baloo in The Jungle Book, that is.)
#4 – I lied. Number four isn’t a quote from the article.
I found it interesting that both authors are IT (Information Technology) professors rather than psychologists or experts on aging. The paper’s topic encompasses two fields, technology and psychology, but the authors’ expertise only supports one end of their argument. Maybe that’s why “older” people sound like an alien race in this article.
#5 – “Proceedings of the 51st Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences.”
I saved the best for last. This paper was delivered at a conference that took place in Hawaii January 3-8, 2018, by professors from New Jersey and Texas. Who wouldn’t want a reason to go to Hawaii in the beginning of January?
Trust—But Verify—The Benefits of Technology
It’s easy to make fun of slapdash arguments and writing, but there are some serious points to be made here. I wrote this blog post on a Chromebook, I posted it on a WordPress website, and I spent $10 this week boosting the website’s connected Facebook page. I’ve got nothing against technology, and I think technology will be a big part of the way Baby Boomers redefine retirement and aging. But, as in so many things, balance is important. The Retirement Whisperer will lean toward retirement “lifestyles” that bring people together in the warmth and richness of face-to-face or shoulder-to-shoulder interactions, will be a little suspicious of those who tell us that technology will solve our problems, and will never hesitate to call out the “experts” when they simply don’t make sense.