Understanding the experiences of older adults using technology to stay connected: A facilitator or creator of new vulnerabilities?

Gemma Wilson, Jessica Gates, Santosh Vijaykumar, Deborah Morgan

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Abstract

Executive Summary
With rapid technological change, smart mobile technology has resulted in digital devices, social media, and the internet being suggested as potential solutions to promote social connection in later life. However, evidence in this field is insufficient and contradictory. This study aimed to explore older adults’ experiences of using technology (including social media) to connect with others. Specifically, this study aimed to understand:
• Motivations for, and preferences towards, using digital devices and social media as a tool to connect with others
• The impact of self-reported loneliness or social isolation on motivations for, and preferences towards, using digital devices and social media
• Factors that enable or prevent older adults accessing, or using, digital devices and social media to connect with others
• The impact of self-reported loneliness or social isolation in enabling or preventing older adults accessing, or using, digital devices and social media
A mixed methods two-phase exploratory sequential design was utilised. Phase one involved semi-structured interviews conducted with 20 older adults (65+ years) across England, Scotland, and Wales. The findings from Phase one informed Phase two, a large survey completed by 410 older adults (65+ years) across England, Scotland, Northern Ireland, and Wales. Findings from Phase one were analysed using Thematic Analysis, and findings from Phase two were analysed using descriptive and inferential statistics.
Access and use of digital devices and social media were valued as tools for social connection. However, online communication was perceived as being supplementary, and not a replacement for face-to-face communication. Specifically, visual communication tools (e.g. Skype, Zoom, and Facetime) were perceived positively, due to being most reminiscent of face-to-face communication. Importantly, Phase two identified a relationship between loneliness, social isolation, and older adults’ technology use. Older technology users who were neither lonely nor isolated used digital devices, social media, and visual communication tools to connect with others significantly more often than those who experienced loneliness, isolation, or both.
Despite being regular technology users, individuals still faced biopsychosocial barriers when using technology for social connection, including physical functioning, self-efficacy, fear, attitudes toward communication, culture of communication, and social capital. The findings demonstrated that these biopsychosocial barriers can significantly heighten inequalities for individuals in many ways, even those with access and skills to use this technology. Phase two identified negative attitudes as being the only psychosocial factor that significantly predicted both digital device use and social media use across the groups.
Recommendations for practice
1. This study showed that individuals experiencing loneliness or social isolation use technology for social connection significantly less than those not experiencing loneliness or isolation. A preventative approach should be taken in supporting lonely or isolated individuals with opportunities to engage with technology for social connection.
2. Negative attitudes adversely affected use of digital devices and social media, independent of loneliness or social isolation, therefore, interventions should aim to target negative attitudes around using social technologies for all individuals.
3. This study showed that digital exclusion can also be experienced by regular technology users, and it is therefore recommended that the definition of digital exclusion is broadened and includes wider biopsychosocial factors. It is imperative that regular technology users are not overlooked when new technologies and services are being developed, or digital connection is being promoted. This will help to maximise the regular use, minimise the potential of disengaging, and promote the use of technology for social connection.
Original languageEnglish
PublisherNorthumbria University
Number of pages53
Publication statusPublished - 31 Oct 2020

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