How Using The Internet Keeps Our Minds Sharp As We Age

Psychologist Ted Schwaba offers advice on how to use the internet to stave off cognitive decline.

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | November 1, 2021

A new paper published in Social Psychology and Personality Science suggests that the internet, when used properly, can be a helpful tool to keep people mentally sharp as they age.

I recently spoke with Ted Schwaba, a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Texas Austin and lead author of the research, to discuss these findings in more detail. Here is a summary of our conversation.

What inspired you to investigate the topic of internet use and cognitive engagement in older adults and what did you find?

One of the biggest changes in society over the last few decades has been changes in internet use among older adults. In 2010, only 40% of older adults used the internet. As of 2019, it's almost doubled, at 73%. As a psychologist, these major changes always pique my interest. Why have some older adults suddenly become everyday internet users while others have decided not to learn new technology? And are there any consequences of these changes?

We found that, in a big sample of around 3,000 Dutch older adults, those who scored higher on a variety of cognitive engagement questionnaires also tended to use the internet more frequently than those who were disengaged. And cognitively engaged older adults were especially likely to do things like search on Google. It makes sense that a curious, intellectual person would be especially attracted to use the internet to learn more about the world. But what was very interesting, to us, was how the internet itself seemed to be psychologically divisive. Cognitively engaged older adults watched more online media (like Youtube), but they watched less offline TV. So, it's not just watching a screen that's psychologically important, it's what kind of screen. And cognitively disengaged older adults seem a bit wary of using the internet.

We then investigated whether older adults who increased in their internet usage showed healthier development in cognitive engagement. Older adults who tend to age most gracefully are those who keep active, learn new things, and expand their horizons. We hypothesized that maybe using the internet has helped some older adults stay cognitively engaged as they get older. And we found that older adults who spent more time reading the news and watching media online declined less in one element of cognitive engagement. The only problem was that, as often happens with these real-life studies, the results weren't perfectly cut-and-dry. Older adults who became more frequent users of other internet activities, like searching, emailing, or using social media, weren't any more or less likely to show healthy cognitive engagement development. It's very hard to figure out whether changes in internet use caused changes in cognitive engagement.

We believe that these findings suggest that online media-related activities, like reading the news online, might be good targets for future intervention studies that seek to help older adults stay cognitively engaged.

I should also note that cognitive engagement and intelligence are very different things. Cognitive engagement is about what you do, and how you do it (exploring, learning, wondering, and questioning). Intelligence is a matter of mental "ability" and test scores. They're both important components of a person's health. But, a whole variety of studies have shown that using technology doesn't actually make a person more intelligent. Here, we're just looking at cognitive engagement.

What are the practical takeaways from your research for people looking to stay cognitively engaged as they age?

I think one of the biggest takeaways is that, even though declines in cognitive ability are pretty much inevitable once a person gets older, declines in cognitive engagement aren't. None of us are going to be as quick-witted when we're 80 as when we're 25 (unfortunately). But our daily decisions about what we do — whether we learn to use new technology and try new things or whether we decide to stick with the familiar — can still be impactful. People who keep broadening their horizons even in older age tend to be people who live longer, more meaningful lives. And so that's certainly something to strive for on a day-to-day basis. I'm reminded of the mediocre Jim Carrey movie, Yes Man, where he wasn't allowed to say "no" to anything and it really opened his eyes to a world of possibilities. I think that we can all strive to learn new things a bit more often rather than settling into the tried-and-true.

Do you have any special words of wisdom for people looking to stay mentally sharp?

So many different factors work together to determine how we change as we grow older, but one thing that has always stuck out to me is that people who stay mentally sharp and healthy have strong social networks. That's one of the potential benefits of things like social media and email use among older adults; even people who are less mobile and can't get out as often can use social media to see what their loved ones are up to and communicate with them.

What are the downsides, if any, to using the internet as a means to stay cognitively engaged?

It's interesting that researchers often think about internet use in old age as something healthy, but consider internet use among teenagers as a potential harm. People of any age can use the internet to learn, connect, and grow. But they can also fall prey to misinformation and get into pointless arguments with strangers. So, how do we maximize the upsides of the internet and minimize the downsides? I think it's really on companies like Google and Facebook to do a better job of designing their websites in ways that maximize human well-being, rather than profits. As we've seen in the news recently, that doesn't currently seem to be the case.

Did you find any gender differences or other demographic differences in your research?

We found a very interesting pattern across ages. For most of the study, we focused on older adults. But we also explored links between cognitive engagement in groups of younger adults (ages 16-39) and middle-aged adults (ages 40-64). There weren't any links between internet use and cognitive engagement in younger adults, which makes sense when you consider just how ubiquitous it is in everyday life among younger people — you use the internet to do basically everything. We also found that middle-aged adults who became more frequent internet users showed especially healthy development in their cognitive engagement, even though they're generally not at risk for age-related cognitive decline. This finding puzzled us, and it's certainly something to look into further.

What personality traits are related to cognitive engagement and the need for cognition?

To quote other researchers who put it better than I ever could, these traits are all emblematic of a "hungry mind" — cognitively engaged people are curious, imaginative, interested (and interesting), and clever. They're students of the world.

After conducting your research, are you more likely to view the internet as a helpful way to stay mentally sharp?

That's a great question. I think that using the internet really has the potential to enrich the lives of people who have difficulties physically going out into the world, perhaps due to age-related declines — and these people might be most at risk of becoming cognitively disengaged. I would have been driven mad with boredom if the COVID-19 pandemic happened in the 1970s and I had to stay at home with no internet!

How might your research inform clinical efforts to prevent cognitive decline?

Unfortunately, and despite researchers' best efforts, technology interventions of any sort haven't been able to reliably stave off cognitive decline (whether through brain training games or targeted computer interventions). But that doesn't mean that these interventions don't have any effect. It appears that these interventions might help bolster cognitive engagement. And, in this study, we found links between internet use and cognitive engagement.

I think that this represents a turn towards a more fruitful target for clinical efforts. Of course, cognitive ability is important for healthy aging, but so is helping people lead cognitively engaged, enriching, curiosity-filled lives. I think that intervention researchers who measure these "softer" forms of intellect will be surprised to see both how important they are and, hopefully, how they're a bit more amenable to intervention than raw intellectual ability.