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Theories, Practices and Examples for Community and Social Informatics

Chapter 2



The chapter questions two assumptions which concern elderly people and technologies. First, that the impact of new technologies is by definition positive for their wellbeing; and second, that the elderly suffer from a digital divide because they lack the interest in and cognitive capacities to adjust to these new technologies. In order to address these assumptions this chapter investigates how elderly people socially construct the meaning of the Internet and mobile phones and how their social representations are related with perceived social wellbeing. A questionnaire which includes free association tasks, measures wellbeing and collects information on use practices was distributed to 100 elderly people living in small- and medium-sized villages in the region of Puglia, South Italy. The results indicate that the relationship between new technologies and social wellbeing is not automatically positive and that elderly people play an active role in choosing and interpreting new technologies.


The present paper aims to explore how elderly people socially construct the meaning of new technologies – namely the mobile phone and the Internet – and how this social construction is related to their perceived social wellbeing. This point is central to the understanding of the so-called digital divide between the elderly and broader society.

Policy interventions aimed at improving the quality of life among elderly people in many cases continue to be based on two assumptions. First, the role of new technologies is considered by definition positive and thus as a consequence it is expected that these technologies should be used as broadly as possible to achieve the greatest benefit possible. Second, the elderly suffer from a digital divide because they are less interested in new technologies (while being at the cutting edge of older technologies, such as TV) than other age groups and/or because they do not possess the cognitive capacities to use them. These assumptions have the effect of creating paradoxical expectations that the elderly should become equal to the young and devote themselves to gaining at least a basic level of understanding of new technologies, even though their lives and needs are specific and different.

These two assumptions continue to dominate the political debate, although they have been implicitly contested by at least three strands of research.

The first strand is provided by the application of psychological models to studies on the elderly understood as an age group (Baltes & Baltes 1990, Carstensen 1991, 1993, Gergen & Gergen 2002). This strand of studies has shown that ageing is not necessarily characterised by cognitive and physical decay. The elderly in fact develop coping strategies in compensation, as well as the capacity to set goals so as to optimise their wellbeing.

The second strand of studies includes research on the relationship between factors such as habits, rewards, attitudes and emotions, and the lack of use of new technologies, as well as previous investigations on social representations of information and communications technologies (Contarello et al. 2007, Contarello & Sarrica, 2007). From these studies it emerges that the elderly are not a passive target of new technologies.

The third strand is made up of sociological studies that have taken a critical stance toward technological determinism, such as those carried out by Stevenson (2009) or that by Sourbati (2008), according to whom “policy development must abandon its technology-centric focus and take a broader, interdisciplinary perspective on the diversity of older users, their social material and cultural circumstances, their needs and wishes, and their everyday practices of media (and) service use” (Sourbati 2008, p. 102). Following this suggestion by Sourbati, the present study draws upon the multiple frameworks applied in previous studies of practices of use of new technologies and upon social representations theory (Farr & Moscovici 1984) and focuses on ageing and social wellbeing. In particular, social representation (SR) theory has proven useful in conceptualising communities as facing and giving meaning to novelties through social construction processes. Thus, for us it is an ideal tool for analysing how elderly people socially construct the meaning of new technologies and for verifying if the social construction is connected with their perceived social wellbeing.

Social representation theory – among the different sociological perspec­tives that currently address the meaningfulness of the relation between technology and humans – particularly resonates with domestication theory and phenomenology.

Domestication theory describes the adoption and use of ICTs in four dimensions: appropriation, objectivation, integration and conversion (Silverstone 2006, Silverstone & Haddon 1996). Appropriation is the process that describes the flexible and changeable interaction between the human and the technological and that involves human agency. Objectivation is the practical process of placing the new technologies inside the home space by restructuring the micro-politics of gender and generation relation­ships and by reorganising the command over the domestic space. Integration is the process of injecting the practices of use of the new media into the rhythms, pauses and rituals of everyday life. Conversion is a process that involves display and the development of skills, competencies and literacies. These four processes suggest a reinterpretation of the non-adoption of new technologies as the results of digital choice rather than digital exclusion. Individuals, in fact, select technologies or some of their functions in their life according to their values, priorities and needs. One’s own characteristics and socio-cultural constraints, as well as social networks and significant others, are thus fundamental to understanding why individuals may or may not integrate a specific technology. The use of relational technologies, such as the telephone, may even increase on the part of retired elderly people who need to keep in touch with family members, relatives and friends. On the contrary, the potentialities offered by other technologies (e.g. Web 2.0) may not be recognised if individuals participate in peer relationships and networks that do not use these media (Haddon 2000).

As for phenomenology, this approach has been suggested as a way to address the integration of new technologies by looking at everyday experience and inter-subjective negotiations. From this perspective, Tsatsou (2011) recently analysed digital divides and their relationship to cultural differences in western and southern European countries. In a nutshell, results show the role that both policy and socio-cultural factors have played in shaping digital divides in Southern Europe. For example in Greece, it turned out that a lack of timely policies added to a generalised lack of interest towards the Internet, thus leading to “resistance” as a key driver in the interaction with it. In Portugal, instead, the effectiveness of policy efforts as regards Internet diffusion was obstructed by everyday life practices, conservative values and high levels of distrust towards the government.

While domestication theory and the phenomenological approach are among the most-applied theories to explain the practices of use of new technologies, research on social representations (SR) adds important dimensions to both. The analysis of integration of new technologies into the household context is expanded by SR beyond individual experience to the socio-cognitive level. SR studies, in fact, address the relationship between system and meta-system, that is the interface between individual meanings and systems of normative regulation as they are developed in the public sphere (Fortunati 2009). Moreover, although SR and phenomenology share the same ontology, SR theory puts more emphasis on the social and communicative dimension rather than on direct experience. As Tsatsou (2011) also recognised, individual agency should be contextualised and historically traced. SR theory addresses this point and suggests looking at the continuous, situated reconstruction of meanings that happens in contemporary societies rather than at inherited and long-lasting cultural constraints.

For these specificities, the process of domestication and integration in everyday life has been investigated in SR research by exploring how these technologies were socially elaborated and shared with the purpose of constructing a common understanding (Contarello & Fortunati 2006, Contarello & Sarrica 2007, Fortunati & Manganelli 2008).

The application of SR theory will enable us to analyse the social construction of the new technologies elaborated by the elderly, to verify if this representation by the elderly is connected to their perceived wellbeing. In this way we will be able to reinforce the criticism of the cited assumptions regarding elderly people. The present chapter is structured as follows.

In the next section, available statistical data on the diffusion of new technologies and the practices of their use among the elderly in Italy is reported. The SR approach is then introduced and discussed, as is the notion of wellbeing. In the next section the study conducted by the authors among a sample of elderly individuals living in two rural communities in southern Italy is presented and the data illustrated in respect to their social consequences. The final discussion presents the main results and indicates directions for further research. In the concluding remarks we come back to the theme of the inclusion of the elderly through new technologies and we highlight our critical observations.

The diffusion of new technologies in Italy

A detailed picture of the diffusion of new technologies in Italy is provided by a national survey on citizens and new technologies conducted yearly by the Italian Institute of Statistics (ISTAT 2010, 2012). The statistical report indicates that Italy is behind many European countries in regards to access to the Internet and the quality of infrastructure. Only 59% of households have access to the Internet and only 49% have a broadband connection. The mobile phone is broadly diffused among elderly families.

Age and place of residence are two main factors which influence the diffusion of new technologies. In Italy, as in many other countries (Commission of the European Communities 2007, Rogers et al. 2005), the elderly use the Internet and mobile phones less, on average, than does the broader population (Ling 2008). A significant gap can be observed between families composed only of individuals over 65 years of age and other families, especially those with at least one underage component. A second significant gap (stable at around 10%) is observed in Italy between families living in northern and southern Italy. Families living in the North own more technological devices and more often have a broadband connection than families living in the South. Data concerning the possession of mobile phones showed a less significant yet persistent gap between northern (90.4%) and southern families (86.3%) in 2010. In 2012, while the mobile is diffused in almost all the families (92%), differences are observed as regards Internet-connected mobiles and smartphones.

The trend of ICT diffusion over the last five years, however, shows a general increase and has been explained by the ageing of baby boomers into old age (Adler 2006, Blaschke et al. 2009, Czaja & Lee 2003); in other words, it has been explained more in terms of generations than of cohorts (Colombo & Fortunati 2011).

When asked about their reasons for not using the Internet, 55.7% of elderly households refer to a lack of capability. A significant number of these families, however, declare that they do not use the Internet because it is not useful for them, and thus they are not interested in it (28.0%). Italians aged 65–74 and over 75, on the contrary, tend to use the Internet at rates similar to or even over the national average for very specific tasks, such as: looking for health information, online banking, phone calls and video calls, all functions that are of particular interest to them.

These results extracted from the ISTAT survey on new technologies (2010, 2012) seem to support the two premises discussed in the introduction – that is, that the elderly lack cognitive capabilities and the abilities to use these new technologies. The results in question cohere with the general trend observed in North America and in other European countries (Rogers et al. 2005, Blaschke et al. 2009), and emphasise some factors which explain the lack of use of new technologies among the elderly: habits, rewards and attitudes. Emotion has recently been indicated to be a fourth important factor. Let us review them briefly.

  1. Habits. Research has indicated that the speed of diffusion of various types of technologies might be explained by looking at the pressure that their general diffusion provokes in the population (Rogers 1995). It is evident that the spread of a specific device among the population makes it progressively more necessary to learn how to use it, as can be observed in the case of the mobile phone in Italy.
  2. Costs and rewards. The elderly, as with other age groups, attribute benefits to the various devices and adopt criteria in order to weigh the costs and rewards connected with the use of each technology. Costs, in the case of the elderly, include both the cognitive efforts needed to acquire the new skills required to use new devices as well as the expenses associated with buying and maintaining said devices (Blaschke et al. 2009). In general, rewards such as communication opportunities have proven to be fundamental to the decision to accept new technologies; this has been observed regardless of age.
  3. Attitudes. According to Rogers, Stronge and Fisk (2005), “Age related differences in attitudes towards technology have been assessed in a number of studies. In many cases, relative to younger adults, older adults reportedly had more strongly negative attitudes, for example, about computers” (p. 140). Furthermore, positive interactions with technology and the accrual of experience tend to rapidly improve attitudes towards them. One reason for such a reaction is the reduction of anxiety that occurs in these cases. And anxiety is one of the most relevant emotional states acting to mediate individuals’ attitudes toward computers (Ellis & Allaire 1999).
  4. Emotion. Renewed interest has been devoted to the role of emotion in the relationship with ICTs (Vincent & Fortunati 2009). First, ICTs are objects of emotions. The mobile phone in particular has become more and more an extension of the human body (Fortunati 2003, Fortunati et al. 2003) and an object of such an intense degree of attachment as to render it a veritable part of personal identity. Second, new technologies convey users’ emotion and also provoke emotion with their mediatised content, in addition to contributing to the development of new languages and modes of communication online (Baron 2010).
  5. Finally, the use or non-use of different devices elicits various emotional states that also affect the problematic issue of trust in computer-mediated communication (Dunn & Schweitzer 2005, Gergen 2003). Research carried out in five European countries including Italy (Fortunati & Manganelli 1998) indicates that the intense use of ICTs in general is significantly associated with positive emotions such as joy, relaxation and feelings of accompaniment. More ambivalent emotions are linked to mobile phones: due to their capacity to bring perpetual contact, mobile phones are both a source of intimacy and form of symbolic attachment (Vincent 2005) as well as a source of discomfort and anxiety in the public sphere (Beckers et al. 2008).

Social representations and new technologies in Italy

Surveys on ICTs often monitor the diffusion of devices and may implicitly suggest that new technologies act as unique forces on individuals and communities which have the choice only of using or rejecting them (Fortunati 2010). Many scholars have shown, on the contrary, that new technologies are characterised by a structural ambivalence and that the “two opposing fronts – those in favour of technology and those against – are understandable if we take into account that technology is situated in the realm of novelties.” (Fortunati & Vincent 2009, p. 6). Opposed perspectives document uncertainty and opacity associated with the digital era and processes of resistance towards new technologies (Bauer 1997), of their appropriation (Boczkowski 2004, Boczkowski & Ferris 2005) and domestication (Silverstone 2006).

From a socio-psychological perspective, the SR approach (Moscovici 1961/1976) provides a comprehensive framework within which researchers can examine how communities make sense of and define what technological novelties are and how they are related to daily life. A social representation is defined as a “socially elaborated and shared form of knowledge that has a practical goal and builds a reality that is common to a social set” (Jodelet 1989, p. 48).

Social representations are emotionally loaded sets of knowledge that emerge when communities have to cope with novelties (see Jovchelovitch 2007) that are characterised by structural ambivalence and rapid diffusion. The unfamiliar is first associated with previous knowledge through anchoring, then it is transformed into “an icon, metaphor or trope, which comes to stand for the new phenomenon” (Wagner et al. 1999, p. 99).

From these premises, a series of studies has been carried out in Italy on the social representation of new technologies. Such studies have aimed at exploring symbolic and emotional features linked with ICTs and at monit­oring the relationship among different practices (Contarello & Fortunati 2006, Contarello et al. 2007, Contarello et al. 2008, Contarello & Sarrica 2007, Fortunati & Contarello 2002, Fortunati & Manganelli 2008, Sarrica et al. 2010). From an early date, these authors included in their research an exploration of wellbeing among the same groups of respondents. From this wave of inquiries the key finding has been that the representation of the Internet has come to be governed by a basic dichotomy. On the one hand, “the Net” was represented as a boundless space that elicited frightening and/or challenging experiences. On the other hand, it was represented as a concrete and delimited place in which to meet friends. This second pole of the representation, first observed several years ago, prefigured a possible shift towards a more intimate use of the Web, compared to when it was undertaken mainly by young adults. Interestingly, the debate on the fragmentation of the Internet (see, for example, The Economist, Sept 2, 2010) is coherent with this trend, as users increasingly adopt applications which allow the sharing of information within a restricted circle of acquaintances.

Another finding that has emerged from this set of studies is that the representation of the mobile phone has from the start been multifaceted, since it merged functional, identity-related contents, emotional investments and negative evaluations. The analysis of its evolution during the last decade reveals, for example, that the mobile phone was first equated to the “old telephone” for its communicative functions, then became an attractive-but-dangerous object at the beginning of 2000 (e.g. it was associated with health concerns), to go back more recently to functional descriptions (Contarello et al. 2007).

Ageing, wellbeing and new technologies

This stream of research on the social representations of the new technologies has recently intersected with studies on ageing and on the issue of emotion and social wellbeing (as devised by Keyes 1998) in the late stages of life.

Several theoretical perspectives on “ageing and wellbeing” in the socio-psychological domain question the assumption that ageing necessarily means a decrease in the quality of life and in the sphere of social relationships. Research has shown that a great variety of attitudes and behaviours occurs depending on individual strategies of coping with “becoming older” and on social strategies of constructing “being older”.

In particular, the Socioemotional Selectivity Theory (Carstensen 1991, 1993) suggests that a change in the relative salience of emotional needs occurs during life. More specifically: “As people age, they realise that time, in a sense, is “running out”, and begin to focus on the present as opposed to the future… subsequently… they care more about experiencing emotional ties and less about expanding their horizons” (Carstensen et al. 2003, p. 107). Similarly, the Successful Ageing perspective (Baltes & Baltes 1990) argues that the elderly are able to adopt efficient coping strategies that are based on three processes:

  1. selection of competences and actions compatible with biological constraints;
  2. optimisation of previous skills to learn new abilities; and,
  3. compensation for decay with remaining abilities or/and with help from the outside.

Finally, a more radical proposal has been put forth by Kenneth and Mary Gergen (2000, 2002) in their advocacy for Positive Ageing. The authors deconstruct the biological and cultural dimensions of ageing and argue that “there is no process of ageing in itself; the discourse of ageing is born from interpersonal relationships within a given culture at a given time” (Gergen & Gergen 2002, p. X).

Various investigations on this topic have reaffirmed the importance of taking into account social construction processes when defining ageing.

Investigations conducted in Italy confirm that emotional wellbeing does not decrease with age, especially among active elderly people who maintain a large social network (Gasparini et al. 2011) and support the distinction between physical decay and ageing (Gastaldi & Contarello 2006). Cultural differences have also been recognised in this regard (Con­tarello et al. 2011).

Further research examining the connection of social representations of ICTs with the issues of ageing and wellbeing (Contarello et al. 2011) has shown that elderly people conceptualise the Internet as a source of progress, characterised by usefulness and fullness of information; however, critical aspects, such as complexity and perceived menace (down to “taboo subjects”) are also associated, especially by those over 75 years of age. Secondly, elderly respondents conceptualise the mobile phone in positive and pragmatic terms, as they consider it useful and convenient, especially in cases of emergency. Critical aspects are not lacking, however; they relate especially to annoyance and violation of privacy caused by the mobile phone. The gen­eral view on new technologies, however, is positive. These results are in line with the idea that generativity and openness do not necessarily decrease with age but, on the contrary, may be maintained or even increase. Elderly respondents reported a slight increase in social wellbeing after the advent of the Internet and the entrance of the mobile phone into their everyday life, especially as it related to the dimensions of actualisation and coherence – that is, the perception that the world is quickly evolving and that they were still able to understand its organisation and functioning. Social integration, contribution and acceptance also increased significantly for the elderly, yet less than other dimensions such as being part of the community, contributing to it and being open to novelties, all of which were augmented by new technologies, although to a lesser extent than actualisation and coherence.

The above-mentioned studies were conducted with convenience samples of elderly individuals living mainly in the north of Italy and they do not claim to be generalisable. They have been shown to be useful, however, in questioning some of the tropes that popular rhetoric on the digital divide had considered untouchable. The present study builds on this wave of studies and investigates the relation between ageing, wellbeing and new technologies, as they are experienced by the elderly living in southern Italy, a context that very few have so far explored.

The Research


As discussed above, the primary aim of the present study is to investigate how elderly people socially construct the meaning of new technologies and how this social construct is related to their perceived social wellbeing. Building on the theoretical and empirical framework outlined above, we operationalised our broad scope by exploring the social representations of the Internet and the mobile phone shared by elderly people living in rural communities in southern Italy. In particular, we were interested in investigating the shared contents and the organising principles of their representations and in deepening our understanding of the emotions connected to new technologies. Secondly, we were interested in exploring how these social constructions are anchored to self-reported social wellbeing.


The participants were a convenience sample of 100 elderly people (men N = 45; women N = 55) living in small-and-medium-sized villages (with inhabitants less than 2,000 and 37,000, respectively) in the region of Puglia in southern Italy. Particular attention was devoted to the age range of potential users, as we considered separately three age levels close to those which the literature on ageing has so far referred to as the young elderly (65–69, N= 55), the elderly (70–74, N= 25), and the old or oldest old (over 75, N= 20).1

Research design, materials and procedure

The research design benefited from previous studies conducted on social representations and on the practices of use of new technologies, as well as from the research on ageing and wellbeing that we mentioned above.

The main tool was a questionnaire which included several sections designed to explore the different components of social representation of new technologies: information, attitude and representation (Le Bouedec 1984), as well as experienced social wellbeing, and its relationship with new technologies.

First, the information component and the representational field were in­vestigated through a free association task: participants were asked to write the first five words that came to their mind when they thought of the following stimuli: the Internet, the mobile phone and elderly people using ICTs.

Second, respondents’ social wellbeing was monitored: given that social well­being was seen as a significant component of overall wellbeing, along with emotional and psychological wellbeing, an adapted version of the scale developed by Keyes (1998) was employed here. Hence in the second section of the questionnaire, a short version of the scale (22 items instead of 33) measured social integration, acceptance, contribution, actualisation and coherence.

Practices of use and personal information were collected in the third section of the questionnaire. This section included questions on ownership, level of familiarity with the Internet and the mobile phone, reasons for using them, frequency of use and places of access to the devices, as well as gender, age, education and socio-economic status.

In the fourth section, respondents were asked to rate whether and to what extent each of the five areas of social wellbeing had improved or worsened after the advent of the Internet and the mobile phone.

In the final section, we explored the emotions related to new technologies, asking respondents to describe the emotions they felt when using new technologies. The questionnaires were administered by two independent researchers. Participants were randomly contacted from among the elderly people of the villages and, once we had obtained their agreement to participate, they were met in a familiar context (e.g., at home, in the bar). The questionnaire was self-administered, but the researchers supported the participants and explained the tasks when necessary.

Data analysis

Free associations were analysed with the help of the SPAD package. The textual corpora were pre-treated to reduce synonyms and to fix typos, and the inclusion frequency threshold was defined. The aim of the pre-treatment was to reduce the dispersion of data and to identify relevant categories of contents. In this sense, the choice to reduce synonyms to a single form and to identify a threshold reduces individual variability and the nuances of expressions while stressing shared semantic categories.

The resulting matrix of associated terms provided by respondents was submitted to a correspondence factor analysis in order to identify the rep­resentational field and its organising principles. Correspondence factor analysis (CFA) is based on the chi square metric and is suitable for categorical data; CFA aims at reducing the information present in a large matrix of data to a space with few dimensions. Similar to principal component analysis, it allows the detection of underlying dimensions (i.e. factors) that organise the relationships between active categorical variables. These dimensions can be eventually depicted as the axis of a Cartesian plane. Results of CFA can be enriched by illustrative variables: these are categorical variables usually associated with respondents that do not contribute to identifying the axis, however it is possible to estimate their coordinate on each of the dimensions emerging from the analysis of active variables. Illustrative variables can thus be projected on the plane in order to show, for each dimension, the positioning of different categories of respondents (Greenacre & Blasius 1994). This technique is usually adopted in exploratory research on SR, es­pecially to explore data collected through free associations tasks because it allows researchers to detect the relationships between semantic categories, the dimension that organises these relationships (representational field) and to suggest the position taken by groups of respondents, that is the anchoring of the representation to psychological, psycho-social and sociological variables.

In this study, data concerning social wellbeing, ownership and use of the Internet and of mobile phones were entered as illustrative variables in order to examine the anchoring of the social representations (for more details on the method employed here, see Contarello & Sarrica 2007).


As regards social wellbeing (Table 2.1), four of the five dimensions of the scale show fair or good reliability (Cronbach’s alpha > .65). The measure of actualisation was not reliable (alpha = .49) and was hence excluded from further analyses.

One sample t-test on composite scores showed that the mean scores were significantly different from the centre points of the response scales. Participants reported relatively high levels of perceived contribution and good levels of integration and coherence. Acceptance – that is, the degree of openness toward the generalised other – was shown to decrease to levels below the median value. No differences were observed between men and women or among the young elderly (65–69), the elderly (70–74) and the oldest old (over 75).

Table 2.1. Social wellbeing

The Internet

The vast majority of respondents (86%) declared that they did not use the Internet. This means that the following findings illustrate a vision of the Internet expressed largely by people who do not use it. Accordingly, only a few reported using it for communication (e.g., email, online calls, forums, chat services, etc.), to search for information (e.g., to browse or to surf the Web) or for other functions (e.g., buying and selling, peer-to-peer exchanges). The most frequent reason advanced for non-use was a lack of interest (43%), followed by a lack of capability (“would not know how to use it” 34%) and, much more rarely, by a lack of information (“never heard about it”, “don’t know where I could use it” 3%). In this respect it is worth noting that the lack of interest is even higher than the national average (ISTAT 2010) (43% vs. 28%), while the lack of capability is lower (34% vs. 55.7%).

Analysing the content of the representation as illustrated by the free associations task (total distinct words: 28; total words: 289), the Internet emerges as a source of pitfalls but also of useful information and com­munication, including wide-ranging contacts (global information highways) as well as learning, progress and work (Table 2.2).

Table 2.2. Content of the representations of the Internet: Most frequent terms evoked by the stimulus “Internet”

The representation field – the result of correspondence analysis performed on the matrix of 28 words by 100 participants – appears somehow meagre, with very few images and a high presence of evaluations and references to the self (e.g., “I like it”, “I don’t use it”, etc.; Table 2.3).

The first factor can be defined as good but not for me vs. the social world at home. This factor opposes a potentially positive evaluation intertwined with a distant stance to the idea of a new form of communication both rich and concentrated in a single personal place (Table 2.3). The first view is mostly held by respondents who reported feeling highly integrated in their community, but was shared by those who felt they contribute less to society and find it more difficult to understand. The second polarity was held mainly by participants with a lower degree of social integration.

Table 2.3. The Internet: Correspondence factor analysis

The second factor can be defined as acknowledgement without understand­ing vs. progress and potential menaces. On the one hand, this second factor combines the two poles of the first; on the other, it expresses a clearly ambivalent view in which convenience and progress are combined with potential menaces (e.g., “pitfalls”, “stress”, etc.) and kept at a distance (e.g., “I am not interested”). Again, this latter, ambivalent view was mostly expressed by respondents who reported feeling well integrated in their social context, but also by those who expressed a lower degree of trust in people (lower acceptance), who endorsed negative emotions towards the technology and who did not use it. As to gender, women gave voice mainly to the ambivalent position (first pole of the first factor, second pole of the second), while men mostly underlined the communicative strength of the device.

Despite this dry and ambivalent representation, the general view on the Internet in relation to social wellbeing is far from negative. Participants report that all the dimensions of their social wellbeing increased after the advent of the Internet.2

Mobile phones

The results concerning mobile phones differ quite markedly. A vast majority of respondents (81%) reported owning a mobile, using it often to speak (48%) or for urgencies and emergencies (42%), but rarely to text (10%).

Table 2.4. Content of the representations of the Mobile phone: Most frequent terms evoked by the stimulus “Mobile phone”

Table 2.5. The mobile phone: Correspondence factor analysis

Analysing the content of the representation resulting from the free associations task (total distinct words: 34; total words: 287), we found a very positive and pragmatic view of the device as a source of usefulness, comfort, help in cases of emergency and closeness to loved ones (Table 2.4). The negative side of the device manifests only rarely, evidenced in terms such as annoyance (frequency = 7), indiscriminate use (freq = 7) and a strict aversion (e.g., “I don’t like it”, freq = 8).

The representation field, however – from correspondence factor analysis performed on the matrix of 34 words by 100 participants – brings to the forefront elements of ambivalence and concern (Table 2.5).

We have interpreted the first factor as a useful but dangerous substitute for the landline vs. infrastructure for speedy communication. Again, reported social wellbeing enters into the picture, showing that higher social integration is mostly linked with the ambivalent view of the technology emerging from the first pole of the factor (e.g., where the mobile is seen as useful, but also badly abused by teenagers and overall not liked by the respondents). This viewpoint was particularly common among women while men, taking up a position on the second pole of the factor, mostly described the functions of the mobile (e.g., calls, texts, etc.), its speed and, most importantly, the boost it provides to all communication exchanges.

The second factor is particularly bare and we interpreted it as substitute for the landline and infrastructure vs. dislike. It sets the idea of the mobile phone as a replacement of the landline made possible by boosters against a straightforward negative evaluation: “I don’t like it”. These two polarities reintroduce a prior distinction made between description and evaluation. In line with the above-mentioned results regarding the Internet, this refusal came mostly from respondents with high levels of social wellbeing, in particular those who feel they make a greater contribution within their own community.

Ambivalence again permeates the third factor, which we propose to en­com­pass ephemeral and emergency use vs. easy, intimate and misused com­mu­nication. On the first pole, acknowledgement of necessity – particularly for urgencies and emergencies – goes hand in hand with criticisms (e.g., “indiscriminately use”) and personal distance (e.g., “I do not use it”), while on the second pole fruitful and easy forms of communication (e.g., “easy communication”, “call and answer”, “feeling close to distant ones”, etc.) are associated together with boosters and misuse by teenagers. Again, social wellbeing plays a role: participants who show less trust in people (lower levels of social acceptance) and (with a statistical trend) those who feel themselves to be less integrated in their social context express a double-faceted position linked with a sharp declaration of non-use.

Overall, the general views regarding the mobile phone in relation to social wellbeing were positive. Among respondents, social wellbeing after the introduction of the mobile phone appears to have improved in everyday life, not dramatically but significantly.3 Only acceptance – that is, openness to the generalised other – has not improved, thus supporting the use of this means of communication within the restricted circle of relatives and acquaintances.


In order to shed light on the discourse about the digital divide within the debate on age, generation and new technologies, this study has sought to combine different traditions and methods of research. In particular, we have explored the social representations of the Internet and the mobile phone shared by elderly people, and relationships with perceived social wellbeing. The match of these different strands of research (social representation and wellbeing) proved to be very effective in shedding new light on the theme of social inclusion.

First, our results support indications that ageing does not necessarily mean exclusion or marginalisation. On the contrary, our sample of elderly individuals reported generally high levels of satisfaction with the quality of their role within society (Social Integration). They perceive themselves to be vital members of their community (Social Contribution), and they perceive good quality of organisation and functioning within their community (Social Coherence). On the other hand, they showed little trust in others (Social Acceptance).

As mentioned, our participants live in rural areas of southern Italy – that is, a context characterised by relatively low diffusion of the Internet and a relatively high level of diffusion of mobile phones. The generation of the elderly investigated here were late adults in the moment of diffusion of new technologies and were living thus only partially exposed to the use of these technologies.

The data generated in this study has thus far highlighted several points.The social representations of the Internet and the mobile phone outlined by our convenience sample of elderly people are ambivalent but more positive than negative and mirror the meanings underlying the process of domestication of these two technologies. The Internet gives them the opportunity to bring the social world home and enrich their level of inform­ation, knowledge and entertainment, while the mobile phone enables them to communicate immediately even on the move. Yet reservations and criticism are also associated with these technologies.

These results recall the ambivalence reported in analogous investigations on social representations of ICTs carried out in the second half of the 1990s, and are in line with more recent findings (Contarello et al. 2011).

As regards wellbeing, the reported contribution to society on the part of these elderly respondents is quite positive on the whole, although some caveats must be raised.

Both the devices inquired about seemed to enhance comprehension and mastering of the world (the Internet more so than the mobile phone) as well as the possibility of making an active contribution to society (the mobile phone more so than the Internet).

Reported social wellbeing was nevertheless not automatically connected with the use and appreciation of new technologies. From the first factor of the correspondence analysis regarding the Internet, those who are more socially integrated say that the Internet is good but not for them and, in the second factor, they consider it uninteresting, although they perceive it as a sign of progress combined with a potential menace. Findings from the corres­pondence analysis regarding the mobile phone moreover show that those who dislike this device are those who are more socially integrated and those who feel themselves more able to make a greater contribution to society.

We can carry this line of interpretation still further by saying that reported social wellbeing is more likely to be connected to an ambivalent attitude toward the mobile phone and the Internet. As regards the mobile phone, lesser degrees of social integration and social acceptance are associated with the ephemeral and emergency use of this device. As regards the Internet, a greater degree of integration is connected with not using this technology and with resultantly ambivalent attitudes toward it.

These findings are very important because they suggest that these two technologies are not automatically perceived by the elderly as enhancing their degree of social inclusion. These results seem in a way opposed to those by Tsatsou (2011), who showed that especially in southern European countries openness to the other and towards societal change were asso­ci­ated with use of the Internet. However, it shall be noticed that our research was carried out in two small/medium villages, where perceived integration and contribution might be associated with shared conservative values and with currently no need for mediated communication. We may thus hypothesise that the ambivalence of the social representation of the new technologies signals a conflict between societal pressure and habits developed with acquaintances: whereas society asks for new practices of use, it is especially the close circles that continue to be relevant to the wellbeing of elderly people. Those feeling more integrated and having stronger ties with the close communities also feel that they do not need to use the new devices.

In the end, the correspondence analysis yielded an unexpected result: the idea that the Internet allows new forms of communication both rich and concentrated in a single, personal place – that is, “everything-at-home”. This metaphor is interesting because it goes back to the basic dichotomy that has governed the social representation of the Internet as a boundless or a delimited place (Contarello & Sarrica 2007). The first pole of this dichotomy, that also characterised a number of previous studies on the Internet and the telephone, asserts that the Internet and both the fixed-line and the mobile telephone have emerged in these investigations as windows which open out to the wider world, symbolising the primary function of these devices – their capacity to overcome the walls of the home and to open up the possibility of contact with (and the chance of being contacted by) the world. In the present study the other side of the coin is perceived by elderly people. The Internet is not conceived of as a way to open the house door and go into the world, it is rather is a tool that brings the world into the home, within the domestic sphere. It could be useful to enrich domestic life, but maybe not for our respondents, who prefer to invite friends and relatives to their home.

This representation stresses the communicative function over knowledge expansion, with an implicit control over communications: communication is understood in fact with already established contacts, it is a relational function much more than an informational function. This approach seems to be coherent with the fragmentation that currently characterises the Internet and its intimate use. The findings drawn from our convenience sample of elderly people endorse this view of the Internet, and this result is coherent with the Socioemotional Selectivity Theory (Carstensen 1991, 1993), which has suggested that the elderly care more about experiencing emotional ties and less about expanding their horizons.

The representation of the mobile phone lacks metaphors and is more centred on functional features. In particular, the results show that this device is strongly conceptualised as a substitute for the fixed-line telephone. This idea is very vivid, as it grasps a strong tendency in Italy where the broad diffusion of the mobile phone tends to undermine that of the fixed telephone (Fortunati & Manganelli 2011).

The age groups taken into account here – the young elderly, the elderly and the oldest old – do not differ consistently or significantly as pertains to representations of these technologies (including their contents, attitudes and practices). Future research will need to continue to differentiate between age cohorts and generations in order to understand the meaning of this apparent lack of differentiation. This result, but in general the whole picture offered in this study, invites further investigation into the current impact of ageing and age cohorts – particularly with the entrance of post-war generations into ageing – on the wellbeing and on the representations and practices of use of new technologies. Gender is instead seen as a more significant anchoring variable. Specifically, women take a more active stance toward the mobile phone and less so toward the Internet, as the second factor of the correspondence analysis shows. On the contrary, men limit themselves to depicting the technical and functional features, especially of the mobile phone, but are more distant than are women from their material use. Elderly women – who seem to be more fully integrated than their elderly male counterparts – appear to be more sensitive to the problems that the disruptive consequences of the use of these technologies can cause. Given the exploratory nature of the present study, further investigations are still needed. To produce a clear and meaningful picture of the relationship between the elderly and new technologies future investigations will need to use a representative sample of the investigated population. Larger samples from different contexts may contribute to efforts to evaluate the specificities and commonalities of the social representations detected in this study, with representations emerging from other research cohorts and/or from other Italian contexts. In this regard the results of the current investigation are coherent with those of previous studies (Contarello & Fortunati 2006, Contarello et al. 2007, Contarello et al. 2008, Contarello & Sarrica 2007, Fortunati & Manganelli 2008, Sarrica et al. 2010), but, again, they are not at all generalisable.

In summary, our results show that the relationship the elderly have with new technologies is far more complex than the debate on the digital divide has envisaged up to now.

Concluding remarks

The present study was prompted by a critical perspective on two of the pre­mises which often shape investigations on the elderly and new technologies: first, that new technologies could enhance the social inclusion of the elderly and hence that the elderly should approach new technologies in the same way as do younger people; and second, that the elderly suffer a digital divide because of their lack of interest and capacities. The results of the current research are not generalisable, however they are consistent with other studies carried out with different samples (e.g. Contarello et al. 2011). In particular, the first of these two premises on social inclusion, which assumes that the role of new technologies would be positive by definition, should be critically revisited. The second – the purported lack of interest and capacity on the part of the elderly – is empirically supported by the results of the present study for the Internet but not for the mobile phone. Thus we conclude that it is not possible to generically talk of the elderly’s deficiency in relation to new technologies: elderly people evaluate each new technology according to their needs and goals and, consequently, they develop different attitudes towards each new technology. Furthermore, the different diffusion of these two technologies is one more proof that digital technologies are not all equal, but some are inclusive (mobile phone) while others are exclusionary (Internet).

What is more important is that the elderly are often criticised for this lack of interest and demonstrated capacity without an attempt to understand to what extent this lack of interest and capability is created by the social system. Attempts to enhance the use of new media among elderly people with the aim of increasing their wellbeing may fail if they continue to be influenced by the rhetoric surrounding the topic and if they do not recognise the proactive role that the elderly play in defining what new technologies are and what they could be, which functions they enable and which functions they would need, and if and how they represent a menace or a positive contribution to their perceived social wellbeing.


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1 These definitions have already been adjusted again by demographers (Tebano 2013), following the increase in life expectancy. For example, now the elderly have been split into young elderly (65–75), elderly (76–84) and old elderly (over 85).

2 Participants were asked to rate their wellbeing after the advent of the Internet on a five-point scale ranging from 1 (far less than before) to 5 (much more than before). Mean and Standard Deviations are respectively: Contribution M= 3.25**, SD=.63; Acceptance M=3.15*, SD=.70; Integration M=3.18**, SD=.52; Coherence M=3.47**, SD=.77. One sample t-test showed significant differences from the median point (3 = as much as before) of the scale: * p <.05; ** p <.01.

3 Participants were asked to rate their wellbeing after the advent of the mobile phone on a five-point scale ranging from 1 (far less than before) to 5 (much more than before). Mean and Standard Deviations are respectively: Contribution M=3.57**, SD=.73; Acceptance M=3.14, SD=.74; Integration M=3.24**, SD=.64; Coherence M=3.33**, SD=.68. One sample t-test showed significant differences from the median point (3 = as much as before) of the scale: ** p <.01.

Theories, Practices and Examples for Community and Social Informatics

   by Tom Denison, Mauro Sarrica and Larry Stillman