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Tuesday, July 12 • 14:46 - 16:15
Older adults mobilize social support via digital networks: Initial findings from the fourth East York study

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Location: PSH (Professor Stuart Hall Building) - 326, 
Goldsmiths, University of London, Building 2
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  • Anabel Quan-Haase, University of Western Ontario, Canada
  • Barry Wellman, University of Toronto, Canada
  • Kim Martin, UWO, Canada
  • Christian Beermann, University of Toronto, Canada
  • Meghan Miller, University of Western Ontario, Canada

Building on three previous studies of East York, we employ detailed qualitative analyses to examine how senior residents of this Toronto area find social support via the internet, their phones, and in-person. Focusing on residents who are 65+, as they comprise nearly half of our sample, we can see that the analytic categories employed in the second East York study remain useful despite advances in digital media. Through this we are able to determine that social support is widely available, with these older adults using the internet, particularly email and Facebook, as well as their phones, and in-person contacts to mobilize their social networks. Many of our participants rely heavily on the assistance of relatives and some on friends for technical support, they continue to learn how to best access their social support via digital networks. 


Many researchers and pundits have claimed that social life has eroded, pointing to different prime causes including industrialization, capitalism, socialism, urbanization, colonialism, and bureaucratization. Recently, some have blamed technology, especially the diffusion of trains, cars, telephones, radios, televisions from diminishing involvement in formally organized groups of parents, veterans, social clubs, and the like (Putnam, 2000), while others have pointed to a supposed lack of authentic connections engendered by digital media (Turkle, 2011; Livingstone, 2008). At the center of this debate is the assumption that ties sustained via computer-mediated communication do not support the mobilization of social support as well as in-person ties (Turkle, 2011; Livingston, 2008). Even if individuals are more connected, it is argued that this increase in ties does not translate into greater networks of social support. Contrary to these claims, our evidence shows that while things are not what they used to be, they have not fallen apart either and social support is exchanged among networks of older Torontonians both on and offline. 


Much work in the area of social capital suggests that resources can indeed flow through social media such as Facebook (Ellison, Steinfield, & Lampe, 2007) and Twitter (Quan-Haase, Martin, & McCay-Peet, 2015). However, much of this work has collected data from university students and young adults, who have grown up with the internet and mobile devices, the so-called "digital natives" (Prensky, 2001). This study by contrast aims to understand how social support is mobilized within the context of older Canadians’ everyday lives by examining what types of social support older residents of East York exchange with their networks, from whom they receive social support, as well as whom they supply with the same, and finally what role social media plays in facilitating or hindering the mobilization of social support in these networks? 


The present study represents the fourth wave of data collection that has taken place in East York since 1968 (Coates, Moyer, & Wellman, 1969; Wellman, 1979; Wellman & Wortley, 1990; Wellman et al. 2006) , taking place from November, 2012 to June 2013. The sample frame consisted of 2,321 residents , of which 304 were randomly contacted and 101 agreed to participate. Of these, 41 respondents ranged from 65 to 93 years of age and have been included in this analysis. Employing these participants we investigated the types of social support exchanged, ranging from companionship and the exchange of small and large services, to emotional and financial aid. 


Residents of East York continue to exchange the same types of social support witnessed in previous waves of data collection ranging from emotional aid, small services, large services, and companionship (Wellman, 1979; Wellman & Wortley, 1989; Wellman & Wortley, 1990; Wellman et al. 2006). In contrast, major financial aid was hardly discussed by participants as a type of social support exchanged. Uniquely, we did find that communication is a type of social support that has not been captured in previous typologies and was central to our study, suggesting that for this population of older residents, communication via mobile phones, email, and social media is a kind of social support that is received and exchanged.
As long as the older residents of East York surveyed possessed the necessary skills and means to utilize information and communications technologies (ICTs), they employed them to further connect with their social networks near and far to mobilize social support, maintain ties, plan face-to-face activities, ask for expertise, or engage in casual conversation. Thus ICTs are adding another layer to the mobilization of social support within personal social networks, and therefore potentially increasing happiness and situational satisfaction.

At the same time, this age group shows great appreciation for face-to-face exchanges and consider communication via email and social media an add-on, instead of a substitute. Here email was the most prominent medium employed for communication, while using Facebook was also common, even if respondents did not actively post their opinions online but followed and interacted with friends and family.

For others it brings frustration and feelings of segregation. These respondents often felt a lack of confidence with technology and their low digital skills block them from taking full advantages of the possibilities afforded by these digital technologies. Thus, the older residents of East York could benefit from further support in learning how to make digital media work for them, for their needs. 

Future Work:

Respondents considered computer-mediated communication (CMC) to be a form of social support, suggesting that increases in digital communication also increase the exchange of overall social support. Future work can further shed light on ICT use by seniors and their potential reliance on both traditional sources of social support as well as their adoption of social media and social networking platforms. Simultaneously, investigations of the overall social network makeup of all networks within the sample using similar methods will enable researchers to suggest methods to enhance digital literacy, change the features of particular media platforms, and understand the motivations that propel usage by the elderly so as to enable their usage of potential affordances. Likewise an investigation of individual views of privacy, both interpersonal and institutional, alongside further study of technology usage within the sample on the whole may uncover peculiarities of the senior population not yet revealed. 


Coates, D. B., Moyer, S., & Wellman, B. (1969). Yorklea study: Symptoms, problems and life events. Canadian Journal of Public Health 60(12), 471-481.

Ellison, N. B., Steinfield, C., & Lampe, C. (2007). The benefits of Facebook “Friends:” Social capital and college students’ use of online social setwork sites. Journal of Computer- Mediated Communication, 12(4), 1143−1168.

Livingstone, S. (2008). Taking risky opportunities in youthful content creation: Teenagers' use of social networking sites for intimacy, privacy and self-expression. New Media and Society 10(3), 393-411.

Prensky, M. (2001). Digital natives, digital immigrants. On the Horizon 9(5). http://www.marcprensky.com/writing/Prensky - Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants - Part1.pdf

Putnam, R. (2000). Bowling alone: The collapse and revival of american community. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster.

Quan-Haase, A., Martin, K., & McCay-Peet, L. (2015). Networks of digital humanities scholars: The informational and social uses and gratifications of twitter. Big Data & Society 2(1). http://arxiv.org/abs/1507.02994

Turkle, S. (2011). Alone together. New York, NY: Basic Books.
Wellman, B. (1979). The community question: The intimate networks of East Yorkers. American Journal of Sociology 84(5), 1201-1231.

Wellman, B. & Wortley, S. (1990). Different strokes from different folks: Community ties and social support. American Journal of Sociology 96(3), 558-588.

Wellman, B., & Wortley, S. (1989). Brothers’ keepers: Situating kinship relations in broader networks of social support. Sociological Perspectives, 32(3), 273-306. Wellman, B., Hogan, B., Berg, K., Boase, J., Carrasco, J. A., Côté, R., Kayahara, J., Kennedy, T. L. M., & Tran, P. (2006). Connected lives: The project. In P. Purcell (Ed.), Networked neighborhoods: The online community in context (pp. 157-211). Guildford, UK: Springer. 


Tuesday July 12, 2016 14:46 - 16:15
PSH (Professor Stuart Hall Building) - 326 Goldsmiths University, Building 2

Attendees (6)