How seniors embrace digital life

January 24, 2019 14:25
Using apps like WhatsApp and Wechat is regarded as a symbol of staying up to date with the times by the elderly.  Photo: Reuters

In Hong Kong, parents often berate their children for spending too much time on their mobile phones instead of studying. In France, there is now even a total ban on mobile phones in primary and junior schools, after the government there decided to bring in the new law to help stop pupils being distracted by phones during class.

Setting aside the question of how adults should deal with excessive use of mobile devices by children, one thing is clear. When it comes to the elderly, it works the opposite: they should be encouraged to use mobile phones more, not less.

Hong Kong has one of the highest rates of smartphone use worldwide. According to government statistics released last March, Hong Kong’s smartphone penetration rate is 88.6 percent. Significantly, for every two persons aged 65 or above, one owns a smartphone. While the silver generation might have previously lagged behind their children and grandchildren in embracing digital communications, they are fast catching up.

In many cases, smartphone technology has improved the quality of life for the elderly by narrowing generational divides. While many grandparents might have once struggled with Chinese characters input or how to send text messages or even just to get online, they can now comfortably send voice notes to remind their grandchildren to, for instance, go home for soups.

Likewise, cute selfies with pets are no longer the preserve of the young. Many young people will also be able to speak of the mass of "elder graphics" that flood their phones on festive occasions such as Lunar New Year or the Mid-Autumn Festival. "Elder graphics" are words of wisdom or good wishes, printed in colorful but outdated fonts, over simple images of nature or religious symbols.

Studies of human relations typically distinguish between two types of human ties: "strong ties" that bind family members and close friends, and "weak ties" between colleagues, internet friends or acquaintances. We enjoy more frequent interactions and exchange more information with "strong tie" connections – these are people with whom we have built close relationships and we are more emotionally attached to them. The opposite would be true for "weak tie" connections.

Understandably, many see increasing smartphone use to be bad for human relationships as people give up face-to-face interactions, retreat to cyberspace and burrow their heads into the lone islands of their mobile devices.

However, recent research by my team at the Chinese University of Hong Kong found that, among different communication devices, smartphones are the most helpful in maintaining strong ties for seniors aged between 55 and 70, who draw satisfaction as a result of their increased digital connectivity.

The study spoke to 514 people from three different age groups: 18 to 34-year-old youths, 35 to 54-year-old middle-aged people, and seniors aged 55 to 70. Phone polling of randomly selected people sought to find out what their use of different communication tools, including tablets, laptops, desktops, fixed-line telephones, and mobile phones, meant for the frequency of interactions they had with their "weak tie" and "strong tie" connections.

The study was supplemented with a set of psychological indicators to assess the mental well-being and the sense of contentment of the respondents.

The study found that middle-aged users and seniors use different communication devices that strengthen their strong ties and increase their sense of contentment. In comparison, while young people’s weak ties grow with the use of wide-ranging communication devices, they end up feeling less contented.

These differences show people of different age groups do not look for the same things from their interpersonal relations. Young people are generally not bound by age concerns, and they invest time and energy to expand their social connections and seek good prospects for the future. These activities see them spend a lot of time communicating with their weak ties.

At the same time, typically long work hours encroach on the private lives of young people, causing them unhappiness. As people age and become more willing to nurture deep and fruitful relationships, they attach greater importance to maintaining emotionally satisfying strong ties.

In a separate research, we spoke to 10 elderly people aged between 57 and 77 who have been mobile phone users for an average of 17 years to understand what their mobile phones mean to them. Smartphones have allowed the elderly to keep in touch with their relatives via WhatsApp or WeChat, and they are also a kind of fashion symbol – the users show they can stay up to date with the times and that they can function as "equals" to the young.

The camera function on smartphones is particularly important to elderly users. Not only do they use it to take and share snapshots of everyday life with family and friends, many also take pictures of the sepia shots they uncover in old photo albums hidden away in camphor chests. As these faded memories are revived, digitized and reminisced together with the young, being online can tangibly enhance the quality of life of the elderly – and make them feel more socially included.

Smartphones not only bring different generations closer together in the virtual world, but also in the real world. Increasingly, they make popular gifts to grandparents and the "free tutorials" they come with can only be good for inter-generational communication and warmth.

Smartphones and mobile apps are no longer irrelevant items or alienating buzzwords to the elderly. Rather, they can help bridge generational divides and foster a sense of contentment, both for the old and the young.

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The writer is professor of the School of Journalism and Communication in the Faculty of Social Science at The Chinese University of Hong Kong.