Technology, social connectedness and COVID-19

Dr Louise McCabe, Senior Lecturer in Dementia Studies, Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Stirling

Technology has an important role to play in enabling supporting social connectedness, particularly in the context of COVID-19. Dr Louise McCabe, Senior Lecturer in Dementia Studies, explores the issue in a bite-sized lecture, available to watch online, together with the transcript provided below.

Hi, I’m Louise McCabe. I’m a senior lecturer in dementia studies within the Faculty of Social Sciences at the University of Stirling, and I’m going to talk to you today about technology, social connectedness and the COVID-19 pandemic. I’m going to start thinking about the role of technology in supporting social connectedness, especially thinking about older people and their particular needs and use of technology. I’m going to talk a little bit about the Technology and Social connectedness project (T&Scon) and about the guidance and recommendations that came out of that project, and I’m going to finish by reflecting on our project findings and outputs in light of the current lockdown situation and the pandemic.

The importance of social connectedness

So why are we interested or why are we thinking about social connectedness? Even before the pandemic, we were away in Scotland that the issue of social isolation and loneliness was very important to think about. In the last 20 years in the UK, the number of people living alone has increased by about 20 percent and Scotland has the highest proportion of one person households around 35 percent.

The graph here on the right hand side shows the change in the percentage of one person households around the world. The blue bars are from 1960 and the pink/red bars from 2015. We can see that countries around the world have been experiencing this significant rise in the number of people living alone. With that situation, we run the risk of people becoming socially disconnected and of experiencing loneliness. In 2018, the Scottish Government published A Connected Scotland which provided evidence about the current situation in Scotland, and provides policy guidance for addressing some of the challenges that we face.

As we’ve noted, about a third of people in Scotland live alone and around 40 percent of those people are of pensionable age – so significant numbers of older people living alone. In the first half of 2016, around a third of the calls received by Silverline were about loneliness. We know from research that social isolation and loneliness impact very negatively on the wellbeing of older people, increasing their risk of a range of health conditions.

A Connected Scotland and various other documents identify technology as one solution to people living alone, with increasing social isolation and increasing loneliness. There’s lots of research that shows us that people thought using communication technologies, smart phones and computers tend to be more socially connected. But what we don’t know, it’s the old chicken and egg problem, is that we don’t know whether people who were already socially connected embrace technology or whether the technology is the causal factor – whether it’s the technology that is pushing people to become more socially connected. Therefore, we do need research that tells us a little bit more about the causal link between the two. Research also reminds us that not everybody has the same access to technology, so dependent on age, occupation, household income and education, may limit people’s ability to access technology and to use technology to promote and maintain their social connectedness.

The Technology and Social Connectedness project (T&Scon)

Technology and Social Connectedness project had the aim of recognising the importance of technology and the potential of technology and promoting social connectedness. We wanted to explore what was going on, what we knew from the research and what was going on in Scotland, in order to provide some guidance so that when people were promoting the use of technology for older people took to promote social connectedness, that was being done in a way that was effective and that was meaningful for older people.

So, we did a review of published research. We looked at statistics and existing data about older people. Then we had a series of discussions and workshops with service providers from social work, from health, and with older people themselves about how they’re using technology to stay connected.

We found lots of positive examples. We had older people talking about using Skype and other video conferencing ways to stay connected with families. Older people who were training other older people that were providing peer training and the use of Facebook and setting up communities online. People within rural areas, setting up Facebook groups for their local communities, and connecting with people all over the world that were from their communities and perhaps had memories from earlier decades.

So we found technology being used directly to support social connectedness, so directly being used to connect one person with another. But we also found lots of examples of technology having an indirect impact for people, especially around accessing NHS support. If support could be offered through text messaging or by video conferencing, it often freed up people’s time to do other things if they didn’t have to travel to appointments and set waiting to see people if they could access to health care much more immediately. We could see real positives coming out of this use of technology, but we also were made aware of some of the limitations of using technology and some of the challenges.


Through the work we came up with this following set of recommendations.

People – think about the people who are going to use the technology, how they’re going to use it, when they’re going to use it, why they’re going to use it, and think about those people as individuals. Importantly, try to avoid any assumptions linked to their age or their gender or their disability. There may be a broad assumption that older people are not so good at using tech or don’t like using technology, but that certainly wasn’t something that came through in our research. We found that their response was much more individual

Risk – often older people told us that they were being presented with the use of tech as a very risky endeavor. Actually, what they wanted were balanced and careful presentation of risks so that they could make their own decisions about how and when to use technology.

Participation – it was always really important to get people involved. If you’re designing a new project that’s going to use technology, you need to get the people who are going to be the end users involved in that design process and helping to make decisions about how the technology is used.

Systems – there were lots of examples of people running into issues with broadband access, with having the right device, with different devices being able to communicate with each other. It’s very important to assess and think about the systems and devices that will be used.

Training – older people talked to us about the training that they thought they needed. There are lots of examples at the moment of Internet training for older people. The most successful examples we came across were where older people were taught to use technology by other older people. They really appreciated that peer to peer learning from somebody that had the same idea about how to use the technology themselves.

These recommendations form part of our toolkit, and within that there’s a how to guide that thinks about who, what, why and how you might be using technology to support and promote social connectedness. There are some case studies from individuals and from services, and there is the more in depth evidence base. You can access information about the different research studies that we looked at and the data that we used. All that guidance is available free to access at the tech or Web site.

This project, as I mentioned, took place last year. So it was before the pandemic, before the lockdown and before social distancing. It’s very interesting to think of it now, in the current situation, and how the use of technology has just exploded, and how people are just getting on and using tech in their everyday lives.

The impact of COVID-19

I wanted to just take a minute to reflect on the particular situation of older people in relation to the current pandemic. We know that older people are at much higher risk of mortality from COVID. We’ve seen some quite worrying underlying ageism and in some of the ways that we’ve responded as a society to COVID. We’ve seen significant impact for vulnerable groups of older people such as those living in care homes. The lockdown, this the shielding and the social distancing have all got a significant risk within them that older people will become more socially isolated and under higher risk of loneliness. We really do need to think about how we can stay connected and how technology can support us.

Thankfully, there are loads of really great examples. So here we can see in the top left a group of older people taking part in a portrait during class. At bottom right, we’ve got older people taking place in an online choir. We’ve got a gentleman video conferencing with his family. Then at the bottom left, we’ve got my mum’s online technology savior, which is being able to play bridge online yesterday with fourteen thousand nine hundred and thirty four other players. So people are very quickly embracing the technology and putting it to use and using it to stay connected.

We talked about the indirect impact of using technology, freeing up time in our normal lives. That’s become a necessity during the pandemic to enable us to stay in contact with health services. We’ve seen health services being very adaptable and quick to respond to the situation. Here in the top left, you can see the increase in the dark blue line and the number of phone appointments being offered by GPs. Very few phone appointments were being used by GPs a year ago, but this March they increasing rapidly. Then this nice example from NHS Fife where they’ve had a grant that’s enabled them to buy iPads so that people who are inpatients in hospital are able to video conference with their family and stay in touch. Finally, there’s the use of ‘Near Me’ which is a video consulting service that’s been rolled out to different parts of the NHS to allow people to access to specialist health care online.

We are adopting and using technology to enable both direct social connectedness and also to enable us to stay well and access the health services that we need.

It’s very important that we keep older people socially connected during the pandemic and that we don’t lose sight of this as a key activity. While there is lots of potential to use technology to connect older people, we do need to be careful and reflective to ensure that that technology is accessible and meaningful for older people and also to ensure that we’re not excluding older people that don’t have access to the technology, who may live in rural and remote areas where they don’t have a great broadband signal or they may not have resources to access technology. Thank you for listening.

Theme by the University of Stirling