New Study Says FaceTime Can Help Older People Fight Depression

Feeling lonely? Get on video chat.

There are a lot of downsides to living in the digital age. A recent survey discovered that young people are plagued by loneliness, a fact that many blame on social media addiction"Phubbing"—the act of ignoring someone while flipping through your phone—has been found to have devastating effects on your interpersonal relationships. And some recent research has found that online dating isn't doing any wonders for our mental health, as it causes body dissatisfaction, body shame, body monitoring, internalization of societal expectations of beauty, comparing oneself physically to others, and reliance on media for information on appearance and attractiveness.

There is, however, at least one benefit to the recent advances in technology. According to a new study published in the American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, using video chat functions such as Skype and FaceTime significantly lowers the estimated probability of depressive symptoms in the elderly.

Researchers compared the effects of four different types of online communication technologies—video chat, email, social networks and instant messaging—on people aged 60 and above via the Health and Retirement Study supported by the National Institute on Aging of the National Institutes of Health, which has been monitoring the well-being of seniors every two years since 1992.

After the researchers analyzed the responses of 1,424 participants, they found that those using video chat were half as likely to suffer from sort of depression as those who relied on e-mail, instant messaging, or social media platforms such as Facebook.

"Video chat came out as the undisputed champion," Alan Teo, an associate professor of psychiatry in the Oregon Health & Science University and the lead author of the study, said. "Older adults who used video chat technology such as Skype had significantly lower risk of depression."

It's not difficult to see why this might be the case. Sending someone an email or text or communicating via FB messenger is convenient, especially if you're both busy and your schedules don't align. But if you're far away from family or friends, and you're feeling a little lonely, seeing the facial expressions and hearing the voice of a loved one can go a long way in curing the blues. Outside of buying a plane ticket, it's the closest you can get to the real thing.

"I still maintain that face-to-face interaction is probably best of all," Teo said. "However, if we're looking at the reality of modern American life, we need to consider these communication technologies. And when we do consider them and compare them, our findings indicate that I'm better off Skyping with my dad in Indiana than sending him a message on WhatsApp."

While the results may not be altogether surprising, as far as Teo knows, "this is the first study to demonstrate a potential link between use of video chat and prevention of clinically significant symptoms of depression over two years in older adults."

So if you're still not sure how to use FaceTime, now may be a good time to learn.

After all, loneliness is a disease, and some studies have found that it can have the same effect on mortality as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Humans are social animals, and maintaining good bonds is critical to both our emotional and physical health.

If you're under 60, you might want to consider giving grandma or grandpa a call via video chat. In addition to making their day, you could very well be adding years to their lives. And for more on aging well, read about why being surrounded by a strong network of friends and family can help extend your life.

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Diana Bruk
Diana is a senior editor who writes about sex and relationships, modern dating trends, and health and wellness. Read more