“Based on our previous research, we know that adults with hearing impairment experience more loneliness, depression, and anxiety than adults who hear normally,” Marieke F. van Wier, PhD, notes. “Since social media platforms are largely text-based, and thus circumvent problems with hearing, communication through the Internet could replace some face-to-face contact and mitigate negative outcomes. Additionally, a shift to remote health care is taking place, which was accelerated due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Digital hearing healthcare facilitates patient-centered care in the comfort of one’s own home. In this way, next to making hearing healthcare more accessible, digital care could perhaps boost the lagging uptake of communication strategies and hearing aids.”

For a study published in Journal of Medical Internet Research, Dr. van Wier and colleagues aimed to determine whether adults with hearing impairment differ in their weekly use of smart devices, apps, and social media compared with adults who hear normally, as well as their reasons for using social media and the benefits of such use. They obtained data from a Dutch cohort, the National Longitudinal Study on Hearing, from September 2016 to April 2020 using a web-based questionnaire and speech-in-noise test. Researchers used the results to classify normal hearing and hearing impairment and compared outcomes with multiple logistic regression models. The study included 384 adults with impaired hearing and 341 adults with normal hearing.

Use of Smart Devices & Social Media

“The high use of smart devices in our cohort (91%), with no differences between adults with hearing impairment and normal hearing, highlights the potential for digitalized hearing health care through specific apps,” Dr. van Wier explains. “However, it is important to note that older adults make less use of them. Among all study participants older than 65, 15.7% did not use a smart device.”

This is important, Dr. van Wier continues, because most people with hearing loss are older than 65, meaning that a significant number of them use the Internet through other platforms. The results underscore the need to provide digital hearing healthcare on platforms other than apps, such as desktop computers and laptops, according to the researchers.

Most adults in the study used social media to communicate with people close to them, such as family and friends, a practice that was highest among those with hearing impairment (Table). Adults with hearing loss were more likely to use social media for work-related activity (age-adjusted OR, 1.51; 95% CI, 1.04-2.18). While this finding surprised the researchers, Dr. van Wier says that work can be difficult for younger people with hearing loss, leading to greater levels of fatigue, stress, lost productivity, and job loss.

As a result, the finding regarding social media’s role in work activities provides “an opportunity for audiological rehabilitation,” Dr. van Wier explains. “For instance, offering vocational rehabilitation services through direct messaging or other social media could promote accessibility of these services.”

Opportunities for Future Research

The study results indicate that there are “great opportunities for offering digital care to patients with hearing loss, since many patients already use it for communication with family, friends, and acquaintances,” says Dr. van Wier.

The researchers did not examine which adults with hearing loss prefer in-person visits or text-based or video contact. Dr. van Wier notes that the preferred method for communication could depend on the type of care required by the patient.

“Obviously, you cannot do an ear exam over the Internet, but it might be fine to communicate the results in a video consultation with live transcription or even in text-based communication. This needs further research so personally tailored, blended hearing healthcare can be developed,” she says. “We would also like to see research on the effect of Internet-mediated communication on psychosocial outcomes in adults with impaired hearing, to see if this indeed mitigates the negative psychosocial outcomes of hearing impairment.”