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Reluctant older adults often only have smartphones because their children got them one, and they think of it as something to be used in emergencies, researchers found

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In the long-running annual series Oh, The Humanities! the National Post surveys academic scholarship at the Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences, which is entirely virtual this year, from May 12-20.

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Asked by social scientists about his digital communication habits, Duncan Robertson, an 83-year-old man from the Toronto neighbourhood of East York, said he was “beginning to see its advantages” but he still has trouble integrating a smartphone into his life.

“It’s like anything. Nobody comes and says, ‘This is how it works.’ They think it’s immediate, but I can’t understand it. Some nice grandson needs to come along and say, ‘Grandpa, this is how you do it.’ And I’ll do it. No one’s done that yet. I need the push,” said Robertson (a pseudonym, like the others in this story, chosen by researchers to reflect his actual ethnic background).

His observation makes him a classic “reluctant older adult,” one of several clear types of digital communication users to emerge from a large social science research project, new findings from which are presented this week at the Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences.

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“We’ve identified some groupings,” said Anabel Quan-Haase, professor of social science at Western University, who co-authored the paper with Molly-Gloria Harper and William Hollingshead, both doctoral candidates.

Reluctant older adults like Robertson often only have smartphones because their children got them one, and they think of it as something to be used in emergencies, sort of like a walkie-talkie. “They really struggled moving into the pandemic because they didn’t have a foundation to build on,” Quan-Haase said.


  1. Read previous stories from the Post’s ‘Oh, The Humanities!’ series

  2. Grammatical style can affect how people think of religious creeds, and therefore, in a sense, what they are, according to United Church minister William Haughton.

    To italicize or not to italicize?

His generational counterpart is someone like Julie Lee, 64, who shares her Reiki healing through an assortment of digital platforms, including online shared calendars and newsletters, and all manner of messaging apps. She has a lot of meetings over tea on Skype with like-minded healers around the world, sharing techniques.

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These are people the team describes as “go-getters,” older users who did not grow up with digital media but are curious and keen, willing to organize their social networks digitally and both offer and ask for social support as needed.

Pandemic adaptation was easier for them, Quan-Haase said in an interview, and therefore their social support was stronger. They had some skills already, and they were neither scared nor stubborn, so they were able to transfer those skills to a new regime where the usual visits with the grandkids became Zoom or FaceTime calls.

Thomas Bailey, 55, falls into this older go-getter category, and observed of his “reluctant” peers that they seem to act as if figuring out a new app is a life and death challenge, as if the computer “is going to explode if I get it wrong.”

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“That’s what holds back most of my friends of my age. It’s because they’re afraid of doing something wrong,” Bailey told the researchers.

The survey dates to before the pandemic, long before, in fact. It was taken over several months ending in 2014, and is the fourth installment of a survey that started in the 1960s at the University of Toronto, designed to flesh out the connections between social support and the technology that supports it. In previous versions, researchers asked about letter writing and telephone calls. Now they ask about iPhones, smart watches, and emojis.

There were 101 respondents from 27 to 93 years of age, 55 women and 46 men, all chosen randomly and interviewed in depth. their answers carefully coded for future research. Three quarters were born outside Canada, which roughly matches the rest of Toronto, and half of them had full-time jobs.

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“Go-getters” had some skills already, and they were neither scared nor stubborn, so they were able to transfer those skills to a new regime where the usual visits with the grandkids became Zoom or FaceTime calls.
“Go-getters” had some skills already, and they were neither scared nor stubborn, so they were able to transfer those skills to a new regime where the usual visits with the grandkids became Zoom or FaceTime calls. Photo by Getty Images/iStockphoto

In those answers, the researchers hope, are clues for how best to promote social support in future crises, whether society-wide like the pandemic, community-wide like extreme weather events, or personal like grief or illness.

Research priorities have changed. When the survey interviews were done in 2014, the primary concern was on negative mental health effects of too much technology. Now, with the benefit of pandemic hindsight, the primary interest in analyzing the responses is on the ways digital communication can keep people connected and supported when they are forced apart.

“The range of digital life skills across the life course suggests that there exist variations in how people mobilize social support through digital media to cope with pandemic related stressors and seek assistance,” they write in the paper presented this week.

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One clear pattern that emerged is that the younger cohort enjoyed a constant stream of communication, constant texting and messaging across many channels.

“It’s like a constant on,” Quan-Haase said.

After about age 35, however, people are still happy to use digital communication, but their social support needs tend to be more task-oriented, such as maintaining lines of communication with parents, children, spouses. Their digital communication becomes more sporadic. After age 50, people’s approach tends to be more rigid, focused on email and phone calls, much less on texting or video chat.

“I like to hear the person talk and have a real conversation, and to me, if you’re doing it with texting, it’s still not the same as a real conversation,” said Olga Kurt, 66.

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