How Older Adults Deal with a Digital Divide

Use of communication technologies, such as the Internet and smartphones, have changed the way that we interact with each other. Many of us benefit from being able to keep in touch with friends on Facebook or loved ones via Skype. However, older adults recently reported that not all of the effects of these new technologies have been positive. 

New College of Communication Arts and Sciences research asked older adults directly about their experiences with communication technologies. Dr. Shelia Cotten and her team conducted a series of nine focus groups with older adults across three distinct geographic areas in Mid-Michigan.

Older adults are at higher risk of being lonely and isolated than younger age groups. Prior research by Shelia Cotten and colleagues has shown that using information and communication technologies can help enhance older adults’ well-being and reduce social isolation. Unfortunately, older adults are the most “digitally divided” group, as they are less likely than younger age groups to be online and use information and communication technologies. “The digital divide is an ever-changing and evolving problem, so it is important to explore its potential ramifications across groups and contexts,” said PhD candidate and lead author Christopher Ball. 

Three common themes emerged from the focus groups. First, older adults reported a wide range of negative emotions, such as frustration, disrespect, and isolation, when they witnessed people using communication technologies in social situations such as family gatherings. Second, older adults expressed a worry that communication technologies are harming younger generations’ social skills.  Third, older adults stated that they attempt to limit the negative impacts of these new technologies by creating tech-free “bubbles” in their homes. 

Christopher Ball theorized that the older adults they spoke with were expressing a new social dimension of the digital divide, which he labeled “the physical-digital divide.” The physical-digital divide exists when a particular digitally divided group, such as older adults, feels ostracized or offended when those around them are engaged with communication technologies in social situations while they are not.  

“The physical-digital divide articulates how being digitally divided can make people feel physical separated from others in social settings. We have all felt ignored at some point while someone checked their phone, but being digitally divided can make these kinds of interactions even more commonplace and isolating,” said Christopher Ball. 

However, he was also quick to point out that he does not believe that younger generations intend to offend or isolate the older adults in their lives; rather the norms for communication etiquette have simply changed over time with the introduction of new communication technologies. 

“In order to close the physical-digital divide we need to increase intergenerational understanding on both sides of the divide, and perhaps provide the older adults in our lives with our undivided attention,” said Christopher Ball.

This research was recently published in the Journal of Applied Gerontology: 
Christopher Ball, Jessica Francis, Kuo-Ting Huang, Travis Kadylak, Shelia R. Cotten, R. V. Rikard. (In Press). The Physical–Digital Divide: Exploring the Social Gap Between Digital Natives and Physical Natives. Online First in Journal of Applied Gerontology, First Published September 19, 2017. 

Contact Information:
Shelia R. Cotten –
Christopher Ball -