Hostname: page-component-cd4964975-g4d8c Total loading time: 0 Render date: 2023-03-28T06:12:48.203Z Has data issue: true Feature Flags: { "useRatesEcommerce": false } hasContentIssue true

Internet use, social isolation and loneliness in older adults

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  19 May 2020

Stephanie Stockwell*
Positive Ageing Research Institute, Anglia Ruskin University, Chelmsford, UK The Cambridge Centre for Sport and Exercise Sciences, Anglia Ruskin University, Cambridge, UK
Brendon Stubbs
Positive Ageing Research Institute, Anglia Ruskin University, Chelmsford, UK Physiotherapy Department, South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust, London, UK Department of Psychological Medicine, Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience, King's College London, London, UK
Sarah E. Jackson
Department of Behavioral Science & Health, University College London, London, UK
Abi Fisher
Department of Behavioral Science & Health, University College London, London, UK
Lin Yang
Cancer Epidemiology and Prevention Research, Alberta Health Services, Calgary, Canada Departments of Oncology and Community Health Sciences, University of Calgary, Calgary, Canada
Lee Smith
The Cambridge Centre for Sport and Exercise Sciences, Anglia Ruskin University, Cambridge, UK
*Corresponding author. Email:


The aim of this study was to explore associations between internet/email use in a large sample of older English adults with their social isolation and loneliness. Data from the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing Wave 8 were used, with complete data available for 4,492 men and women aged ⩾ 50 years (mean age = 64.3, standard deviation = 13.3; 51.7% males). Binomial logistic regression was used to analyse cross-sectional associations between internet/email use and social isolation and loneliness. The majority of older adults reported using the internet/email every day (69.3%), fewer participants reported once a week (8.5%), once a month (2.6%), once every three months (0.7%), less than every three months (1.5%) and never (17.4%). No significant associations were found between internet/email use and loneliness, however, non-linear associations were found for social isolation. Older adults using the internet/email either once a week (odds ratio (OR) = 0.60, 95% confidence interval (CI) = 0.49–0.72) or once a month (OR = 0.60, 95% CI = 0.45–0.80) were significantly less likely to be socially isolated than every day users; those using internet/email less than once every three months were significantly more likely to be socially isolated than every day users (OR = 2.87, 95% CI = 1.28–6.40). Once every three months and never users showed no difference in social isolation compared with every day users. Weak associations were found between different online activities and loneliness, and strong associations were found with social isolation. The study updated knowledge of older adults’ internet/email habits, devices used and activities engaged in online. Findings may be important for the design of digital behaviour change interventions in older adults, particularly in groups at risk of or interventions targeting loneliness and/or social isolation.

Copyright © The Author(s), 2020. Published by Cambridge University Press

Access options

Get access to the full version of this content by using one of the access options below. (Log in options will check for institutional or personal access. Content may require purchase if you do not have access.)


Araujo, T, Wonneberger, A, Neijens, P and de Vreese, C (2017) How much time do you spend online? Understanding and improving the accuracy of self-reported measures of internet use. Communication Methods and Measures 11, 173190.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Banks, J, Karlsen, S and Oldfield, Z (2004) Socio-economic Position. Available at Scholar
Beard, JR, Officer, A, de Carvalho, IA, Sadana, R, Pot, AM, Michel, J-P, Lloyd-Sherlock, P, Epping-Jordan, JE, Peeters, GMEE, Mahanani, WR, Thiyagarajan, JA and Chatterji, S (2016) The World report on ageing and health: a policy framework for healthy ageing. Lancet 387, 21452154.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Bell, C, Fausset, C, Farmer, S, Nguyen, J, Harley, L and Fain, WB (2013) Examining social media use among older adults. In Proceedings of the 24th ACM Conference on Hypertext and Social Media. New York, NY: ACM, pp. 158–163.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Beneito-Montagut, R, Cassián-Yde, N and Begueria, A (2018) What do we know about the relationship between internet-mediated interaction and social isolation and loneliness in later life? Quality in Ageing and Older Adults 19, 1430.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Berner, J, Aartsen, M and Deeg, D (2017) Predictors in starting and stopping Internet use between 2002 and 2012 by Dutch adults 65 years and older. Health Informatics Journal.Google ScholarPubMed
Berry, R (2011) Older People and the Internet: Towards a ‘System Map’ of Digital Exclusion. Available at Scholar
Bol, N, Helberger, N and Weert, JCM (2018) Differences in mobile health app use: a source of new digital inequalities? The Information Society 34, 183193.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Boss, L, Kang, DH and Branson, S (2015) Loneliness and cognitive function in the older adult: a systematic review. International Psychogeriatrics 27, 541553.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Cacioppo, JT and Hawkley, LC (2009) Perceived social isolation and cognition. Trends in Cognitive Sciences 13, 447454.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Cacioppo, JT, Hughes, ME, Waite, LJ, Hawkley, LC and Thisted, RA (2006) Loneliness as a specific risk factor for depressive symptoms: cross-sectional and longitudinal analyses. Psychology and Aging 21, 140151.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Cacioppo, JT, Hawkley, LC and Thisted, RA (2010) Perceived social isolation makes me sad: 5-year cross-lagged analyses of loneliness and depressive symptomatology in the Chicago Health, Aging, and Social Relations Study. Psychology and Aging 25, 453463.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Cacioppo, JT, Hawkley, LC, Norman, GJ and Berntson, GG (2011) Social isolation. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 1231, 1722.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Campaign to End Loneliness (2015) Measuring Your Impact on Loneliness in Later Life. Available at Scholar
Cantarero-Prieto, D, Pascual-Sáez, M and Blázquez-Fernández, C (2018) Social isolation and multiple chronic diseases after age 50: a European macro-regional analysis. PLOS ONE 13, e0205062.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Chen, YR and Schulz, PJ (2016) The effect of information communication technology interventions on reducing social isolation in the elderly: a systematic review. Journal of Medical Internet Research 18, e18.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Chipps, J and Jarvis, MA (2016) Technology-assisted communication in older persons in a residential care facility in South Africa. Information Development 33, 393405.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Choi, NG and Dinitto, DM (2013) The digital divide among low-income homebound older adults: Internet use patterns, eHealth literacy, and attitudes toward computer/Internet use. Journal of Medical Internet Research 15, e93.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Chopik, WJ (2016) The benefits of social technology use among older adults are mediated by reduced loneliness. Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking 19, 551556.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Cornejo, R, Tentori, M and Favela, J (2013) Enriching in-person encounters through social media: a study on family connectedness for the elderly. International Journal of Human–Computer Studies 71, 889899.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Cornwell, EY and Waite, LJ (2009 a) Measuring social isolation among older adults using multiple indicators from the NSHAP study. Journals of Gerontology: Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences 64B, supplement 1, i38i46.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Cornwell, EY and Waite, LJ (2009 b) Social disconnectedness, perceived isolation, and health among older adults. Journal of Health and Social Behavior 50, 3148.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Cosco, TD, Lachance, CC, Blodgett, JM, Stubbs, B, Co, M, Veronese, N, Wu, YT and Prina, AM (2019) Latent structure of the Centre for Epidemiologic Studies Depression Scale (CES-D) in older adult populations: a systematic review. Aging & Mental Health. ScholarPubMed
Cotten, SR, Ford, G, Ford, S and Hale, TM (2012) Internet use and depression among older adults. Computers in Human Behavior 28, 496499.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Cotten, SR, Anderson, WA and McCullough, BM (2013) Impact of internet use on loneliness and contact with others among older adults: cross-sectional analysis. Journal of Medical Internet Research 15, e39.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Cotten, SR, Ford, G, Ford, S and Hale, TM (2014) Internet use and depression among retired older adults in the United States: a longitudinal analysis. Journals of Gerontology: Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences 69B, 763771.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Courtin, E and Knapp, M (2017) Social isolation, loneliness and health in old age: a scoping review. Health and Social Care in the Community 25, 799812.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Coyle, CE and Dugan, E (2012) Social isolation, loneliness and health among older adults. Journal of Aging and Health 24, 13461363.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
de Jong Gierveld, J and Havens, B (2004) Cross-national comparisons of social isolation and loneliness: introduction and overview. Canadian Journal on Aging/La Revue canadienne du vieillissement 23, 109113.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Demakakos, P, Hamer, M, Stamatakis, E and Steptoe, A (2010) Low-intensity physical activity is associated with reduced risk of incident type 2 diabetes in older adults: evidence from the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing. Diabetologia 53, 18771885.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
DiTommaso, E, Brannen, C and Best, LA (2004) Measurement and validity characteristics of the short version of the Social and Emotional Loneliness Scale for Adults. Educational and Psychological Measurement 64, 99119.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Domenech-Abella, J, Lara, E, Rubio-Valera, M, Olaya, B, Moneta, MV, Rico-Uribe, LA, Ayuso-Mateos, JL, Mundo, J and Haro, JM (2017) Loneliness and depression in the elderly: the role of social network. Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology 52, 381390.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Erickson, J and Johnson, GM (2011) Internet use and psychological wellness during late adulthood. Canadian Journal on Aging/La Revue canadienne du vieillissement 30, 197209.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Fokkema, T and Knipscheer, K (2007) Escape loneliness by going digital: a quantitative and qualitative evaluation of a Dutch experiment in using ECT to overcome loneliness among older adults. Aging & Mental Health 11, 496504.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Grant, N, Hamer, M and Steptoe, A (2009) Social isolation and stress-related cardiovascular, lipid, and cortisol responses. Annals of Behavioral Medicine 37, 2937.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Grenade, L and Boldy, D (2008) Social isolation and loneliness among older people: issues and future challenges in community and residential settings. Australian Health Review 32, 468478.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Hamer, M, Molloy, GJ, de Oliveira, C and Demakakos, P (2009) Leisure time physical activity, risk of depressive symptoms, and inflammatory mediators: the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing. Psychoneuroendocrinology 34, 10501055.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Hamer, M, de Oliveira, C and Demakakos, P (2014) Non-exercise physical activity and survival: English Longitudinal Study of Ageing. American Journal of Preventive Medicine 47, 452460.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Hamer, M, Lavoie, KL and Bacon, SL (2014) Taking up physical activity in later life and healthy ageing: the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing. British Journal of Sports Medicine 48, 239243.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Hansen, T and Slagsvold, B (2016) Late-life loneliness in 11 European countries: results from the Generations and Gender Survey. Social Indicators Research 129, 445464.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Hawkley, LC (2017) Loneliness and health. In Gellman, M and Turner, JR (eds), Encyclopedia of Behavioral Medicine. New York, NY: Springer, pp. 15.Google Scholar
Hawkley, LC and Cacioppo, JT (2007) Aging and loneliness: downhill quickly? Current Directions in Psychological Science 16, 187191.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Hawkley, LC and Cacioppo, JT (2010) Loneliness matters: a theoretical and empirical review of consequences and mechanisms. Annals of Behavioral Medicine 40, 218227.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Hawkley, LC and Kocherginsky, M (2017) Transitions in loneliness among older adults: a 5-year follow-up in the National Social Life, Health, and Aging Project. Research on Aging 40, 365387.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Hawkley, LC, Thisted, RA and Cacioppo, JT (2009) Loneliness predicts reduced physical activity: cross-sectional & longitudinal analyses. Health Psychology 28, 354363.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Heo, J, Chun, S, Lee, S, Lee, KH and Kim, J (2015) Internet use and well-being in older adults. Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking 18, 268272.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Hogeboom, DL, McDermott, RJ, Perrin, KM, Osman, H and Bell-Ellison, BA (2010) Internet use and social networking among middle aged and older adults. Educational Gerontology 36, 93111.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Holt-Lunstad, J, Smith, TB and Layton, JB (2010) Social relationships and mortality risk: a meta-analytic review. PLOS Medicine 7, e1000316.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Hughes, ME, Waite, LJ, Hawkley, LC and Cacioppo, JT (2004) A short scale for measuring loneliness in large surveys: results from two population-based studies. Research on Aging 26, 655672.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Iliffe, S, Kharicha, K, Harari, D, Swift, C, Gillmann, G and Stuck, AE (2007) Health risk appraisal in older people 2: the implications for clinicians and commissioners of social isolation risk in older people. British Journal of General Practice 57, 277282.Google ScholarPubMed
Jackson, SE, Firth, JA, Firth, J, Veronese, N, Gorely, T, Grabovac, I, Yang, L and Smith, L (2019 a) Social isolation and physical activity mediate associations between free bus travel and wellbeing among older adults in England. Journal of Transport & Health 13, 274284.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Jackson, S, Hackett, R and Steptoe, A (2019 b) Associations between age discrimination and health and wellbeing: cross-sectional and prospective analysis of the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing. Lancet Public Health 4, e200e208.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Jackson, S, Yang, L, Veronese, N, Gorely, T, Grabovac, I, Johnstone, J, Firth, J and Smith, L (2019 c) Reducing loneliness among older adults through providing free travel access: a population-based assessment of social isolation and free bus travel in older adults in England. Available at Scholar
Khalaila, R and Vitman-Schorr, A (2018) Internet use, social networks, loneliness, and quality of life among adults aged 50 and older: mediating and moderating effects. Quality of Life Research 27, 479489.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Kharicha, K, Iliffe, S, Manthorpe, J, Chew-Graham, CA, Cattan, M, Goodman, C, Kirby-Barr, M, Whitehouse, JH and Walters, K (2017) What do older people experiencing loneliness think about primary care or community based interventions to reduce loneliness? A qualitative study in England. Health and Social Care in the Community 25, 17331742.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Khosravi, P, Rezvani, A and Wiewiora, A (2016) The impact of technology on older adults’ social isolation. Computers in Human Behavior 63, 594603.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Kobayashi, LC and Steptoe, A (2018) Social isolation, loneliness, and health behaviors at older ages: longitudinal cohort study. Annals of Behavioral Medicine 52, 582593.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Lauder, W, Mummery, K, Jones, M and Caperchione, C (2006) A comparison of health behaviours in lonely and non-lonely populations. Psychology, Health & Medicine 11, 233245.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Lee, PH, Macfarlane, DJ, Lam, TH and Stewart, SM (2011) Validity of the International Physical Activity Questionnaire Short Form (IPAQ-SF): a systematic review. International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity 8, 115.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Leigh-Hunt, N, Bagguley, D, Bash, K, Turner, V, Turnbull, S, Valtorta, N and Caan, W (2017) An overview of systematic reviews on the public health consequences of social isolation and loneliness. Public Health 152, 157171.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Leist, AK (2013) Social media use of older adults: a mini-review. Gerontology 59, 378384.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Lelkes, O (2013) Happier and less isolated: internet use in old age. Journal of Poverty and Social Justice 21, 3346.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Luo, Y, Hawkley, LC, Waite, LJ and Cacioppo, JT (2012) Loneliness, health, and mortality in old age: a national longitudinal study. Social Science & Medicine 74, 907914.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Murray, CJ, Vos, T, Lozano, R, Naghavi, M, Flaxman, AD, Michaud, C et al. (2012) Disability-adjusted life years (DALYs) for 291 diseases and injuries in 21 regions, 1990–2010: a systematic analysis for the Global Burden of Disease Study 2010. Lancet 380, 21972223.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Netz, Y, Goldsmith, R, Shimony, T, Arnon, M and Zeev, A (2013) Loneliness is associated with an increased risk of sedentary life in older Israelis. Aging & Mental Health 17, 4047.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Nimrod, G (2010) The fun culture in seniors’ online communities. The Gerontologist 51, 226237.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Office for National Statistics (2018 a) Internet Users, UK: 2018. Available at Scholar
Patterson, AC and Veenstra, G (2010) Loneliness and risk of mortality: a longitudinal investigation in Alameda County, California. Social Science & Medicine 71, 181186.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Peplau, LA (1985) Loneliness research: basic concepts and findings. In Sarason, IG and Sarason, BR (eds), Social Support: Theory, Research and Applications. Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Springer, pp. 269286.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Peplau, LA and Perlman, D (1982) Perspectives on loneliness. In Peplau, LA and Perlman, D (eds), Loneliness: A Sourcebook of Current Theory, Research, and Therapy. New York, NY: Wiley, pp. 120.Google Scholar
Perissinotto, CM, Stijacic Cenzer, I and Covinsky, KE (2012) Loneliness in older persons: a predictor of functional decline and death. Archives of Internal Medicine 172, 10781083.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Perlman, D and Peplau, LA. (1984) Loneliness research: a survey of empirical findings. In Peplau, LA and Goldston, SE (eds), Preventing the Harmful Consequences of Severe and Persistent Loneliness. Rockville, MD: National Institute of Mental Health, pp. 1346.Google Scholar
Petersen, J, Kaye, J, Jacobs, PG, Quinones, A, Dodge, H, Arnold, A and Thielke, S (2016 a) Longitudinal relationship between loneliness and social isolation in older adults: results from the Cardiovascular Health Study. Journal of Aging and Health 28, 775795.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Petersen, J, Thielke, S, Austin, D and Kaye, J (2016 b) Phone behaviour and its relationship to loneliness in older adults. Aging & Mental Health 20, 10841091.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Prince, SA, Adamo, KB, Hamel, ME, Hardt, J, Connor Gorber, S and Tremblay, M (2008) A comparison of direct versus self-report measures for assessing physical activity in adults: a systematic review. International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity 5, 56.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Quintana, D, Cervantes, A, Sáez, Y and Isasi, P (2018) Internet use and psychological well-being at advanced age: evidence from the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health 15, 480.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Rico-Uribe, LA, Caballero, FF, Martín-María, N, Cabello, M, Ayuso-Mateos, JL and Miret, M (2018) Association of loneliness with all-cause mortality: a meta-analysis. PLOS ONE 13, e0190033.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Russell, DW (1996) UCLA Loneliness Scale (Version 3): reliability, validity, and factor structure. Journal of Personality Assessment 66, 2040.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Russell, D, Peplau, LA and Cutrona, CE (1980) The revised UCLA Loneliness Scale: concurrent and discriminant validity evidence. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 39, 472480.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Russell, DW, Cutrona, CE, McRae, C and Gomez, M (2012) Is loneliness the same as being alone? Journal of Psychology 146, 722.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Scharkow, M (2016) The accuracy of self-reported internet use – a validation study using client log data. Communication Methods and Measures 10, 1327.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Shankar, A, McMunn, A, Banks, J and Steptoe, A (2011) Loneliness, social isolation, and behavioral and biological health indicators in older adults. Health Psychology 30, 377385.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Smith, L, Gardner, B, Fisher, A and Hamer, M (2015) Patterns and correlates of physical activity behaviour over 10 years in older adults: prospective analyses from the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing. BMJ Open 5(4).CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Steptoe, A, Breeze, E, Banks, J and Nazroo, J (2013 a) Cohort profile: the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing. International Journal of Epidemiology 42, 16401648.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Steptoe, A, Shankar, A, Demakakos, P and Wardle, J (2013 b) Social isolation, loneliness, and all-cause mortality in older men and women. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 110, 57975801.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Sum, S, Mathews, RM, Hughes, I and Campbell, A (2008) Internet use and loneliness in older adults. CyberPsychology & Behavior 11, 208211.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Tsai, Y-F, Wang, H-H, Chang, Y-C and Chu, HH (2010) Videoconference program enhances social support, loneliness, and depressive status of elderly nursing home residents. Aging & Mental Health 14, 947954.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Turvey, CL, Wallace, RB and Herzog, R (1999) A revised CES-D measure of depressive symptoms and a DSM-based measure of major depressive episodes in the elderly. International Psychogeriatrics 11, 139148.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Victor, CR and Yang, K (2012) The prevalence of loneliness among adults: a case study of the United Kingdom. Journal of Psychology 146, 85104.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
White, J, Zaninotto, P, Walters, K, Kivimäki, M, Demakakos, P, Biddulph, J, Kumari, M, De Oliveira, C, Gallacher, J and Batty, GD (2018) Duration of depressive symptoms and mortality risk: the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing (ELSA). British Journal of Psychiatry 208, 337342.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Wilson, RS, Krueger, KR, Arnold, SE, Schneider, JA, Kelly, JF, Barnes, LL, Tang, Y and Bennett, DA (2007) Loneliness and risk of Alzheimer disease. Archives of General Psychiatry 64, 234240.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed