Presentation: Olders on mobiles

Presentation: Olders on mobiles

No country for old men? Analyzing older people’s attitudes towards mobile communication

Presentation by Francesca Comunello and Simone Mulargia at the Fifth ECREA European Communication Conference 2014


Mobile technology plays an increasing role in interpersonal communication, representing a useful resource for different age cohorts. While the usage of mobile communication by younger people has received a wide attention from communication scholars, its usage by older people is less explored (for previous literature, see Conci et al, 2009; Fernández-Ardèvol & Arroyo 2012). As society shifts towards networked individualism (Wellman, 2004) and networked sociability (Castells et al., 2007), older people also experience new patterns of sociability built on me-centred networks (Rainie & Wellman, 2012), that are growingly enabled by mobile technologies. In European societies, older population is steadily growing: this justifies a special focus on their relational and communication practices that show a relevant role both for personal safety and for social inclusion.

The goal of our research project is to analyse the usage of mobile phones by the elderly in Italy. We conducted 51 semi-structured interviews in Rome and in a mid-range town located in Umbria, between October 2013 and February 2014. Our interviewees are both men and women, coming from different socio-cultural backgrounds, and their age varies between 60 and 95. All interviews have been recorded, transcribed and subjected to thematic analysis. Results will be compared to empirical evidence gathered with the same methodology in other countries – in Europe and in North and South America.

Our study explores older users’ motivations and usage practices, their perceptions of mobile phones, their adoption and domestication of mobile phones, their usage skills. More specifically, our analysis focuses on: – personal characteristics – personal networks (personal network composition, self-perceived social life, communication channels) – adoption of mobile telephone – consumption patterns of mobile devices – used mobile services – location and mobility of mobile telephone – current mobile characteristics – attitude and opinions towards mobile technology.

Our preliminary results show major differences in users’ behaviours and perceptions, that can be related to age cohorts (younger olds vs older olds); socio-cultural levels; vital trajectories (in terms of professional and familiar status); and gender. As an example, while a majority of our interviewees shows a prevalent “utilitarian” attitude towards mobile phones (attributing the mobile phone an instrumental value, mainly related to personal safety or to micro-coordination), younger and female users also show a
“hedonistic” attitude, using mobile phones to strengthen their social ties and to “keep themselves busy”. Another interesting phenomenon are the so-called “assisted users”: elderly depending, for their mobile phone usage, on other people; while some of them don’t experience a full autonomy, needing help even for basic features (such people typically depend on younger family members), others seem to depend on professional figures (typically, someone in the phone shop) in order to achieve advanced goals (mainly related to internet access). In Italy, some users report not to rely on family members for privacy reasons, showing to perceive the mobile phone as a highly personal, intimate tool. In broader terms, older people show multifaceted approaches to mobile technology and, more generally, to “the times they are living in”.