Friday, 29 May 2020

COVID-19 has brought the “digital divide” to the fore

Posted by Gemma Wilson, Health Psychologist & Research Fellow in Applied Health, Northumbria University

With the onset of COVID-19 it seems that we are relying on technology even more than usual. Many of us are using technology as our main source of communication, such as for work meetings via Zoom, family chats on FaceTime, WhatsApp messaging, or sending photos. Online food shopping, ordered and delivered to your door, has become the norm. Internet banking and health services have become more important than ever, and online communication platforms are even allowing us to continue our hobbies and exercise. But not everyone has access to these tools to support their daily living and wellbeing at home. Even people with access to the technology may not have the skills to use platforms, such as Facebook, Skype or Zoom, which still leads to exclusion.

There is an ever-growing number of older adults using the internet and social media, with notable increased use across the UK, USA, and Europe over the last decade. However, older adults still remain less likely than younger people to use the internet and social media. That’s why we decided to do a piece of research that aimed to explore older adults’ experiences of using technology, including social media, to connect with others. Part of this study involved interviewing 20 people who were over 65 years old from across the UK, to understand how they used technology to communicate with others, and to consider what helps and hinders their use of technology. 

All participants in the study regularly used digital devices and social media, however, despite their regular use of technology, they still experienced five barriers to using it as a tool to connect with others:

1. Confidence
Some had low confidence, seeing themselves as novices and not “technology minded”, and some lacked patience with technology.

2. Fear
Some were fearful that they would break the devices, do something “wrong” that they couldn’t fix, or they were worried about privacy and misinformation.

3. Practical issues
Some experienced physical barriers, such as the size of text, or the buttons being too small.

4. Culture and communication
Cultural differences around communication impacted the way some of the participants used social media and their online connections. They worried about how they would come across or didn’t like the way others communicated using social media.

5. Social network
Finally, we also found that existing social groups and relationships were key in the older adults choosing to use technology and in helping to provide ongoing support. Often without this existing social network, they would not have even received a digital device, let alone started using it, or understanding how to maintain it.

The overall message that we took away from this research is 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. However, during COVID-19, technology must be a replacement for face-to-face communication, and is the best available way for us to remain connected with friends and family.

The reliance on technology since the onset of COVID-19 has brought the “digital divide” to the fore in the context of these barriers. Many will continue to rely heavily on technology during this uncertain period, and for as long as we are social distancing. During these measures, it is important that we consider people who do not have access to technology and are unable to rely on it in a way that others can, as well as those that do have access but continue to experience difficulties in its use. Specifically, due to no longer being able to rely on social groups and wider support networks for guidance in using technology. This lack of access significantly heightens inequalities for so many people in all of the ways discussed above.

To find out more about this study, the podcast “Ageing in a Digital World” is available to listen/download on the following platforms:

Dr Gemma Wilson is a Health Psychologist, and a Research Fellow in Applied Health at Northumbria University, Newcastle. Her research interests are in ageing, psychosocial wellbeing, digital inclusion, social participation, digital health. Contact Gemma at, or on Twitter via @drgemmawilson.

Research team: Dr Gemma Wilson, Mrs Jessica Gates, Dr Santosh Vijaykumar, Dr Deborah Morgan.

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

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for writing this blog. It is very much informative and at the same time useful for me