For most of us, physical or even emotional pain can occasionally hold us back from seeing the people and doing the things we love. But for those suffering from chronic pain, it can be impossible to socialize, isolating people at home, and adding a layer of emotional pain that makes the physical condition even tougher to bear. That combination can be particularly devastating as we get older, when social connections are both less available and even more important for well-being. Now for some good news: Simple social-media tools provide an unprecedented opportunity to connect socially despite the limitations resulting from physical problems, lack of proximity or problems with scheduling or transportation. Remarkably, social media can be used by all generations to keep isolation from leading to depression.

Researchers at University of Michigan found that connecting with others via social media is an effective substitute for in-person socializing when pain keeps people from engaging in physical activities and face-to face social events.

The researchers used information from a nationally representative survey of more than 3,400 Medicare patients who answered questions about their depression, pain and social activities online and in person. More than half reported experiencing pain in the previous month and said that it made them less likely to participate in face-to-face social activities. About 17% of all respondents said that they use an online social network. (Note: The survey did not ask for other specifics such as what sites people used, what exactly they did when on them and for how long.)

Key finding: Among respondents experiencing chronic pain, just 6% of those who used social media reported symptoms of depression, compared with 15% of those who didn’t use social sites. Of course, social media can’t completely replace all face-to-face socializing but, according to the study’s lead author Shannon Ang, it’s a good stop-gap measure until we can find better solutions to remain socially connected when pain and physical limitations stand in the way.


While almost 40% of Americans age 65 and older use social media, according to 2018 data from the Pew Research Center, a sizable number of seniors don’t take advantage of these tools.

If you’re not currently using social media, setting up your accounts on the various social-media platforms can seem a bit daunting. But once you’ve established the accounts, staying connected isn’t hard. The sites/apps are easy to use. Ask a friend or family member already adept at social media to help or consider hiring a local high school or college student—it often takes only a few minutes to set up an account and start using it, and it should only take an hour or two to establish the accounts that interest you and even get a good start at using them.

Choose platforms and groups based on your personal interests and the ones your loved ones like to use—for your friends, that might be Facebook but for your grandchildren, that might be Instagram, said Karen North, PhD, psychologist and clinical professor of communications at University of Southern California.

Facebook: This is the most popular site among seniors, according to Pew. Many people use Facebook to connect with family and friends from different generations, checking out children’s and grandchildren’s activities and photos and reconnecting with old friends, even friends from childhood.  Facebook has fallen out of favor with younger generations and even some older people are posting less, North said, so it might not be as rich of an experience as it once was. Nevertheless, Facebook is set up to let friends and family share pictures, experiences, comments, and life events and if your family and friends are using Facebook, then it is a great way to stay up to date and/or to communicate with people in your life.

Instagram: If you’re into creative photography, Instagram may be for you. You can scroll through thousands of photos and videos on any subject from beautiful sunsets, family birthday parties, or to clips of old movies, and everything in between. It’s popular with younger people, too. You can follow your friends’ and family’s lives through the photos and other images they post—and leave comments for them—and they can see yours. You can save photos to your account and also send private messages. It’s also a platform where professionals in many specialties, such as food and fashion, post their news and connect with fans. 

Twitter: People use Twitter to be in the know and share what they know in the moment. You can find out what’s happening in the world as it unfolds in real time and weigh in with your opinions. Twitter is like a giant information ticker with posted information and images scrolling by in real time. The platform is lightning fast—if you’re on Twitter when an earthquake hits, you’re likely to read about it before you feel it. The key to Twitter is that people post short messages, just a few short sentences (maximum 280 characters) and often add a label to it called a “hashtag” (abbreviated #) so that you can search for topics that interest you (e.g., “#ArtDeco” will get you pictures of this vintage art form). You can leave and respond to comments and photos both within your circle and with virtually anyone in the world with a Twitter account.

YouTube: There is unlimited content on this widely popular video-sharing platform, including educational and entertainment videos, TV shows and music videos. To keep in touch with family and friends, you can set up a private YouTube channel and share personal videos. You can even make a video to share with your grandchildren or other friends and relatives. For example, you can use your cell phone to make a video of yourself reading a favorite book to your grandchild, showing your face, blowing a kiss and showing pages of the book, even zooming in and pointing with your finger to a favorite picture or a fun detail in the book. Then post it on your family YouTube channel for your grandkids to watch. Ask family to share their videos, too. And your family and friends can share their fun moments by uploading their videos as well. Wouldn’t you love watching your daughter do the limbo on her latest cruise or seeing your grandkids build sand castles at the beach?

Note: You can make your account on all these platforms private, meaning only the people who you choose can see or “follow” you. Get more tips from a social-media professor about how to stay safe on social media.

Bonus tip: Want to stay connected without any social media platform? The easiest way to connect with friends and loved ones is by using your cell phone’s feature that turns your phone call into a video call. On an iPhone, this feature is called FaceTime and on an Android phone it’s called Google Duo. Use your phone as the camera and show yourself and the things and people around you. Each person sees the other person live in real time on their phone screens (it’s just a phone call where you also get to use the camera to see the other side), so it feels like you really are together. This is a great way to “participate” in an event you can’t attend in person or simply just read a book to grandchildren. Your grandkids can show off their rooms or their latest art projects or even take you to their class event!

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