We are led to believe, often as a result of a hard-sell by suppliers, that technology can provide an antidote to loneliness in older people.

Dr Barbara Barbosa Neves

But what happens when technology makes the situation worse? What if tech companies are over-promising the potential of their products?

These are some of the questions raised by a study by Barbara Barbosa Neves from Monash University, who investigated the effect of purpose built communication apps in alleviating loneliness and isolation.

The findings are reported in the Journal of Sociological Research Online.

Dr Barbosa Neves says that overall, the apps increased communication with family members and social contacts.

“However, there was a dark side,” she told Community Care Review.

“A minority of participants didn’t gain at all from the technology and for some it actually made things worse.

“We were not expecting this completely opposite effect.”

Older people at home

The research analysed previous studies conducted across Australia and Canada using social connection apps co-designed by the research team and older people.

The photo sharing app (Journal of Sociological Research Online)

The Australian research involved an app designed to connect older people living at home in with new social contacts, which allowed users to send photos to other people participating in the program.

The app was meant to build new friendships, but some participants were unable to make those connections which only increased their sense of alienation, Dr Barbosa Neves said.

At least three participants failed to find similar interests and one participant complained about the app containing photos of ‘rubbish’, like a television and fish tank that he had no interest in.

“They felt it was really hard to find common interests,” Dr Barbosa Neves said.

“I think in this case the technology really exacerbated an internalised responsibility for their loneliness by making them think ‘maybe I’m not that interesting any more’.”

Aged care residents

 The Canadian study used an app designed to improve communication with family members for people in residential care.

Message-sending app (Journal of Sociological Research Online)

The app contained pre-created messages and required only tapping or swiping.

But it increased the sense of loneliness and isolation for some people, with the study finding the technology made some feel inadequate and more aware of their institutionalised settings.

In some cases participants would send messages and became upset when family members didn’t respond.

“It made them really realise that there were alone, and made and think ‘I am lonely and no one cares’.

“It was the completely opposite effect of what we were trying to achieve.”

Technology not always the answer

Dr Barbosa Neves says the research suggests that while technology can help address loneliness, it’s not the only solution and needs to be balanced against community based approaches, talking to people, and enhancing face to face contact.

She says the idea of ‘technosolutionism’ needs to be approached with caution.

“A lot of technology-based companies are over-promising what technology can do,” she said.

“Technology can work if we recognise the complexity of loneliness. If we don’t address the social stigma of loneliness there’s no intervention that can help us.”

Dr Barbosa Neves said the researchers also learned that the end user can’t be the sole focus.

“When we co-designed we just focused on the direct end user. We were just focusing on what older people wanted and we should have engaged the family.”

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