Changing Attitudes to Digital Communication?

Has the Covid-19 Pandemic and subsequent enforced Social Isolation Changed Attitudes to Digital Communication amongst older people?


The Covid-19 pandemic has created unprecedented challenges that have profoundly affected all aspects of society.  Most people, even those not directly affected by the disease, have had to make significant changes to their lives.  Young people will be affected by school closures, uncertainty around exams and transitions to secondary school, college or university.  People with families are likely to be affected by changes to working arrangements and looking after and attempting to home school children because of school closures.  Older people (especially those over 70 or with health conditions) are more likely to be affected by the need to isolate and consequently how they deal with practicalities such as getting shopping and maintaining relationships with friends and family.  

It has become apparent that both the disease and the measures taken to control it do not affect everyone equally.  Many groups face specific challenges due to, for example, age, underlying health status, ethnicity and access to resources.  In order to help address these inequalities, we must first try to understand their underlying causes before we can propose solutions to address them.  Technology has a role to play in the response to both the direct effects of the pandemic, such as healthcare, vaccine research and contact tracing, and also the indirect effects, such as loneliness and social isolation.

There has been significant media coverage about the increase in use of video calling platforms both for people working from home and for families to keep in touch.  While no substitute for being able to meet in person, it is easy to see how video calling and digital messaging could be highly beneficial in allowing individuals who are isolating to keep in touch with family and friends.  This article will look at how the use of communication technology has changed during the pandemic and whether older people are benefitting from digital communication.

History of Video Conferencing

Although thought of as a recent invention, the first developments in video conferencing were in 1927 by the AT&T company Bell Labs.  However, video conferencing did not become practical until both computers with digital cameras and the infrastructure to allow high speed data transmission were widely available.  Video conferencing software was available in the early 1990’s, but did not reach mass market until the early 2000’s.  Skype was released in 2003 and gained popularity because it was free and allowed cross-platform communication.  At the same time, broadband was becoming both widely available and affordable for home users.  Since then, the development of smartphones and high-speed mobile data services such as 4G mean that many have the prerequisites for video calling and digital messaging with them wherever they go, whether they choose to use it or not.  Alongside advances in hardware and communication infrastructure, technology and social media companies have developed communication platforms with many offering their services free to use, often in exchange for advertising revenue or access to personal data.

Overcoming Barriers to Digital Communication

So if the technology is widely available and affordable, why isn’t everyone using video calling and digital messaging?  There is a perception that older people are not interested in engaging with technology and research suggests that older people are generally slower to adopt new technologies.  Concerns around complexity of technology, feelings of inadequacy and health related issues such as declining visual clarity may also prevent older people from trying new technologies.  Older people may report they are ‘too old’ as a convenient and socially acceptable cover for other concerns such as online security and fear of ‘getting things wrong’.  Before Covid-19, the most commonly reported reason for older people to not engage with digital technology is that it has nothing to offer them.  However, there is evidence that older people are more willing to engage with technology when the perceived benefits outweigh the concerns.  This has been demonstrated since lockdown, with numerous anecdotes of how older people have been persuaded by family to try digital communication in order to stay in touch with family.  Having a compelling reason has motivated this group of people to overcome the barriers (both real and perceived) to learning new digital skills.

Getting Started with Digital Communication

For older people keen to try digital communication, knowing where to start with is the first challenge.  When talking to friends about keeping in touch with their families during lockdown, especially older relatives, one of the most common recurring themes is that they wish they had the chance to set up and teach the family member how to use digital messaging and video calling.  Trying to explain how to set up a webcam, download apps and configure privacy settings over the phone is a poor substitute for being there in person.  Even when devices have been configured, there is usually ongoing maintenance required – downloading updates, virus checking, agreeing to new terms and conditions.  

Many of the most popular digital messaging platforms, while extremely useful for many people, assume a knowledge of technology and the language of how apps work that people who are inexperienced may not have.  There are alternative communication platforms such as Link-ages that have been specifically designed to address this issue and make the setup process as easy as possible, as well as being simple to use on tablet devices for older users.  Platforms that allow the initial setup and ongoing assistance to be provided remotely remove a significant barrier to adoption. By having two different interfaces, one on tablets and one on smartphones Link-ages provides different users with the choice of the interface that suits them.

Providing someone who is inexperienced at using digital technology with the knowledge and skills to navigate modern digital devices takes time and patience.  There is often a temptation to try to introduce too many new skills at once, which can be overwhelming. Older people often receive hand-me-down tablet devices pre-loaded with multiple screens of apps from well-meaning relatives.  To someone who has just started to learn these skills this can be confusing and make it difficult to find the required app.  The answer is simply, remove the clutter and start with a few apps that have real and immediate benefits such as a photo gallery, weather and news apps.

Digital Skills for People in Care

The Covid-19 pandemic has shown how difficult decisions sometimes must be made that involve accepting some negative consequences for the overall greater good.  Shielding our most vulnerable members of society has generally been accepted as an appropriate response to a highly infectious disease.  But one of the negative consequences for many of those being shielded, especially those without close friends and family, is potential harm to their psychological well-being through loneliness and social isolation.  For many older people, loneliness is already a serious issue that has been exacerbated by Covid-19.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Need

How important is an individual’s psychological well-being to their overall well-being?  According to Maslow, a person’s psychological needs, such as relationships with friends and family, become important after their basic needs of physiological well-being and safety are met:  

In this context, it would therefore be understandable for care organisations trying to contain outbreaks of Covid-19, while struggling to source PPE and dealing with staffing issues, to prioritise their residents’ basic needs.   In spite of this, many care organisations have made great efforts to provide residents and their families with the means to keep in touch digitally.  In many cases has taken the form of a resident being supported by a carer while using one of the video calling platforms.  Many organisations have reported how these efforts have been extremely valuable, both to the individual in care and to their family.  These benefits extend beyond the actual call, providing stimulus for conversation with carers and other residents, especially if photos or videos are shared.

Looking to the Future

While in some aspects of daily life lockdown is easing, there is still a great deal of uncertainty whether things will return to normal, or if a new normal will emerge.  Many vulnerable groups are still shielding and only a relatively small percentage of children are returning to school.  The need for human connection – sharing experiences with those closest to us - will always exist.  Digital communication has provided an imperfect, but acceptable solution during lockdown and has shown that it can be adopted by everyone.  Even when lockdown ends, digital communication will have an increasingly important role to play in supporting and enhancing face to face interaction.  It is therefore essential that we encourage all members of our families to embrace digital by giving them access to suitable technology and support.

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