A COVID-19 catch-22: Challenges and opportunities of social connection technologies

Having just crossed the threshold of a year since COVID-19 became a global pandemic, there has been ample time to observe the ways in which technology has been used as a means of fostering social connectedness.  As a result of widespread restrictions on face-to-face contact, social isolation and loneliness have become increasingly salient issues for the general population and a particularly pressing issue for older adults. Beyond the pandemic, social isolation and loneliness have been associated with a host of negative outcomes, particularly with respect to mental health. We are now seeing the negative effects on mental health as a result of the pandemic.

Humans are social animals. The desire for socialization, for community, and for a sense of belonging are aspects of life that are associated with increases in life satisfaction and psychological wellbeing. As such, many technologies have been developed to facilitate social connection. From the telegram to Instagram, increasingly sophisticated technologies have been created to foster greater communication between people. Unfortunately, these technologies are often not created with the older adult in mind. Although the uptake of technology is increasing amongst older age groups, these groups generally have the lowest uptake of technologies of any age group. As I have detailed in a previous OIPA blog, the digital divide, i.e. barriers to the usage and uptake of technologies, is a major issue amongst older adults, particularly those from lower socioeconomic groups.

During the pandemic the digital divide has widened considerably along socioeconomic lines. The explosion of videoconferencing platforms, such as Zoom, has allowed individuals to connect socially across the globe, so much so that the term  “Zoom fatigue” (which may be developed as a result of spending too much time on these social platforms) has entered the English language. However, these platforms do not benefit everyone equally. There are evident social disparities in the wherewithal needed to operate these videoconferencing platforms – which includes digital literacy as well as hardware and software, and they have a marked age dimension, which in Canada at least also runs along racial/ethnic lines. As for socioeconomic factors like income, wealth, and education, they have well established relationships with a host of health outcomes, ranging from premature mortality to social isolation and loneliness.  This means that older adults from socioeconomically deprived areas may face a double burden of poor social determinants of health and reduce uptake/access to social connection technologies.

Consequently, we find ourselves in a COVID-19 catch-22 situation: older adults who would derive the greatest benefit from social connection technologies may have diminished access and capacity to utilize them. As continued COVID-19 restrictions limit the opportunities for in-person socialization, disparities in health and wellness are being exacerbated. Another challenge that goes beyond the digital divide, are disparities in the availability of mobile connection and /or high-speed internet. For older adults that live in remote or rural areas, access to reliable internet connections can be intermittent or even absent. So even if individuals have the desire and skills to connect socially via online platforms, the limitations of the communication infrastructure may be inhibitive.

With all of the aforementioned challenges in mind, there have been some important developments that suggest that steps in the right direction are being taken. Firstly, the pervasiveness of social isolation and loneliness during the pandemic has not only highlighted the value of social connection, but it has pushed the associated mental health problems onto the agenda of researchers and policy makers. In the pre-pandemic era, social isolation, loneliness, and the mental health of older adults was an issue that did not receive the attention it deserves; however, a year into the pandemic we would be hard-pressed to find someone who didn’t have first-hand experience of an older adult that was facing these challenges. Consequently, increasing attention has been brought to these challenges and large sums of research funding are now being directed towards alleviating these issues, for example: Canada’s COVID-19 and Mental Health Initiative. When issues hit close to home, it seems that funds seem to follow shortly behind. So, in this sense, there has been a significant uptick in the quantity of resources being directed towards technologies that foster greater social connectedness.

There have certainly been many challenges over the past year navigating the fluctuating physical distancing restrictions whilst trying to remain socially connected. Sadly, for the older adults that would derive the greatest benefit from technologies aimed to foster social connection, they are often left on the wrong side of the digital divide. Within encouraging influxes of funding into the social connection and mental health technologies space, it is hoped that we can develop innovative solutions that reduce disparities in reaping the benefits of these technologies.

About the Author

Theodore D Cosco joined the Oxford Institute of Population Ageing in 2016 as a Research Fellow. Dr. Cosco is a Chartered Psychologist (British Psychological Society) trained in applied social research methods (MSc 2011, Trinity College Dublin) and epidemiology (PhD 2015, University of Cambridge), and Assistant Professor of Mental Health and Aging in the Department of Gerontology, Simon Fraser University. His research interests include resilience, mental health, and the interface between technology and healthy ageing.