By Shantel Longboy
Everyone is familiar with the smartphone. This useful and practical device has become an almost near necessity in the everyday lives of most individuals. However, a new technological advancement that has been entering the scene, not so much as a necessity but as a compelling new accessory, is the smartwatch. Smartwatches differ in functions and looks based on the brand and manufacturer, however one company that has significantly increased the popularity of this device is Apple and their relatively new Apple Watch. Apple Watches share similar basic functions to an iPhone, just in a condensed form. Users have the ability to text, call, get directions with Google maps, go on a select few apps, and much more. The biggest difference is that it is much smaller and gives the owner the ability to wear it like a watch.
Similarly to how smartphones have contributed to society, Apple Watches also have the potential to become a great source of support in maintaining social networks and communication and connectedness. This is especially true for older adulthood, where individuals face not only physical and mental declines, but also declines in social circles. A smaller social group during old age is not necessarily a negative thing in itself. Is actually expected during this time of life. But what is a growing concern is that these smaller social networks may contribute to experiences of social isolation during older adulthood. Taking into consideration these associations, preventing social isolation may not necessarily mean increasing an older individual’s social circle, for older adults tend to “move toward emotional aspects of life and personal relationships” which contributes to the smaller networks (Toepoel, 2012). Instead, social isolation may be countered by providing older adults with products that can encourage communication, such as smartphones and smartwatches.
One specific study by Palmer, Newsom, and Rook (2016) displays exactly how difficulties in communication, may affect social relationships of older adults, and how these relationships can affect the individual’s physical and mental health. Using data from a national sample (n=742) representing adults 65 and older in the US, results indicated that communication difficulties were associated with various elements of social relationships (Paler et. al, 2016). To conduct this longitudinal study, surveys were collected over 2 years every 6 month (Paler et. al, 2016). Participants asked questions regarding their social relationships , demographic characteristics, health and functional limitations, visual impairment, and communication difficulties. The communication difficulty that implied the greatest negative impact on social interactions were regarding verbal communication (Paler et. al, 2016). Communication difficulty was a significant predictor of smaller social network size, fewer positive social exchanges, less frequent participation in social activities, and higher levels of loneliness”, however it was not significant in predicting negative social exchanges (Paler et. al, 2016). The results also imply that older adults with such communication difficulties or disorders have a higher risk of problems regarding mental and health because of “social isolation, reduced social participation, higher rates of loneliness” and a greater negative impact on positive social relationships (Paler et. al, 2016). The use of either smartphones or Apple Watcheswould help to alleviate some of these communication difficulties, especially when those variables are verbal. Texting, instant messaging, and emailing, which are all functions that smartphones and smartwatches can accomplish, would help to counter some of the barriers that may hinder common verbal forms of communication, such as calling. Providing more options for older adults to confidently pursue and cultivate social relationships may encourage more positive social exchanges as well as remove some of the factors which contribute to feelings of loneliness, social isolation, and lower social participation.
Another study conducted by Vroman, Arthana, and Lysack (2015) seeks to examine the relationships between information communication technology (ICT) use, ways in which older adults utilize it, and their feelings of social connectedness. A sample of 198 older adults in New England were surveyed regarding the extent of their ICT use, experiences with technology, and socio-personal characteristics.The study found that the top activities which older adults use ICT for are those which had personal significance to them (Vroman et. al, 2015). These activities included communicating with family, staying in touch with distant friends, and staying in touch with local friends (Vroman et. al, 2015). Of the participants who reported using ICT the most, 70% stated that their use and experiences with current technologies bring them closer together with people, 89% reported frequently interaction with family, and 83% noted frequent interaction with non-family and friends (Vroman et. al, 2015). A relationship was also found between higher ICT use and self-perceived characteristics such as being satisfied with activities, persevering, physical and emotional independence, and having a positive outlook, while non-users felt intimidated and anxious with technology (Vroman et. al, 2015). This study supports the idea that smartphones and Apple Watches, which are considered ICT, can bring about numerous positive effects for older adults, not only in their relationships but also concerning their perception of self.
Although it is evident that smartphones and Apple Watches have numerous features that can be beneficial to older adults, there are some aspects of these devices which may hinder an older individual from utilizing it. One negative aspect about smartphones is that often times these devices come with an excessive amount of features and applications which may not all be beneficial for older adults. From photo editing apps to voice modifiers, there are numerous apps and characteristics to smartphones that may seem overwhelming and even deter some older adults from using such technology. Smartphones may be more attractive to seniors and seem more user friendly if cell phone carriers offered options for older adults to only have the most basic and beneficial applications of the phone available to them. Although Apple Watches offer a much more limited number of features on it, this may be a benefit for older adults because it keeps it simple to navigate and perform the most basic but essential tasks. One negative aspect for the Apple Watch is that the screen is considerably small since it mimics the style and size of a typical watch. Although stylish and convenient, a small screen also means smaller app icons, letters, and numbers. Older adults with vision difficulties may not be able to fulling reap the benefits of the watch because it could be much more difficult for them to see what is on the screen, tap on the small icon, or read a text message or email. This product would be more attractive to seniors if the watch face was made bigger, or if there were an option to increase app or text size.
In conclusion, a decrease in social circles is a common characteristic of aging. Although there are numerous variables which influence this decrease, there are still actions which older adults can take to make sure that the connections and relationships are positively maintained in a strong and healthy way. Smartphones and smartwatches are two products which can help achieve this goal. It is important for older adults to be proactive about upholding the quality of social relationships through communication in any form, for there is evidence supporting that a lack of it can lead to social isolation and negative emotional feelings.
Palmer, A., Newsom, J., & Rook, K. (2016). How Does Difficulty Communicating Affect the Social Relationships of Older Adults? An Exploration Using Data From A National Survey. Journal of Communication Disorders, 62, 131-146. doi: 10.1016/j.jcomdis.2016.06.002
Toepoel, V. (2012). Ageing, Leisure, and Social Connectedness: How could Leisure Help Reduce Social Isolation of Older People? Social Indicators Research, 113(1), 355-372. doi: 10.1007/s11205-012-0097-6
Vroman, K., Arthanat, S., & Lysack, C. (2015). Who Over 65 is Online? Older Adults’ Dispositions Toward Information Communication Technology. Computers in Human Behavior, 43, 156-166. doi: 10.1016/j.chb.2014.10.018