Healthy ageing

Technology as a tool for social connection

Exploring older adults’ experiences of using technology, including social media, to connect with others

What is the main aim?

This study set out to explore older adults’ experiences of using technology, including social media, to connect with others. Specifically, we sought to understand the motivations and preferences for using technology to connect with others, as well as what helped and hindered the use of technology by participants. In addition, we aimed to explore the relationship between loneliness, social isolation and technology use.

Research summary

In this mixed methods study, phase one involved undertaking interviews with 20 older adults (65+ years old) from across the UK, all of whom regularly used digital devices and social media. Themes identified in phase one informed the development of phase two; a national online survey, which was completed by 410 people.

Why is the study important?

Loneliness and social isolation are recognised as being linked to poor physical health and wellbeing. Problems including illness, disability, issues with geographical or social status, and separation from children can increase loneliness and social isolation. Digital devices and social media can facilitate communication however, there is limited evidence of its use with older people.

Despite levels of technology use rising over the past decade for users of all ages, figures show that older adults are narrower in their use of the internet and are less likely to carry out a wide range of tasks online. Digital exclusion has the potential to exacerbate isolation, as keeping in touch with friends and family is often viewed as one of the most important parts of being online.

It was therefore important to study older adults’ use of technology to connect with others, and its relationship to loneliness and social isolation.

What are the findings?

Participants primarily used technology for ‘meaningful’ online relationships with their existing network of family and friends, and specifically connecting with those living abroad or at a distance. Visual communication tools, such as Skype and WhatsApp, emerged as the preferred method of achieving these meaningful relationships. While no form of technology can replace face-to-face interactions, visual communication was considered the ‘next best’ option, and the participants discussed the importance of being able to see others.

All of the participants were regular technology users, yet they still experienced barriers to using it as a tool to connect with others. These barriers included low confidence, a lack of patience when using technology, as well as concerns around privacy, and a fear of breaking the device or ‘doing something wrong’. For a number of our participants, physical ailments also caused problems when using devices, particularly relating to eyesight and persistent pain. Finally, it was also evident that existing social groups and relationships were a key factor in participants choosing to use technology and for ongoing support.

The overall message from this research study was that technology - even for those who use it on a regular basis - is still only a tool for social connection, a welcome tool, but only a tool, and it certainly isn’t a replacement for face-to-face communication.

Who conducted the research?

The Chief Investigator is Dr Gemma Wilson from Northumbria University.

The wider research team: Dr Santosh Vijaykumar (Northumbria University), Dr Deborah Morgan (Swansea University) and Mrs Jessica Gates (Northumbria University).

When did the study take place?

The study ran from March 2019-February 2020.

Who funded this study?

The study was funded by the British Academy/Leverhulme Trust.

For more information, please

Email: Dr Gemma Wilson,

Last modified: Fri, 12 Jun 2020 13:44:38 BST