Here is my piece for NEXUS, the Newsletter of The Australian Sociological Association. It focuses on my ageing research in Human-Computer Interaction, particularly my accomplishments and challenges in a multidisciplinary and applied environment. Thanks Sue Malta, for inviting me to contribute to your last issue as an editor – it was an honor!
I was interviewed last week for the Portuguese newspaper i. It was a piece by a brilliant journalist, Ana Tomás, so it turned out to be a fun and insightful conversation. It is always interesting to reflect on what was asked and in what context — see my previous post on my Canadian TV interview. Here are some brief (quick and dirty) reflections.
The interview was mostly about how my generation (generation Y, if you are into those labels) will adapt to new technologies as we age. The assumption is that it will be easier for us, since we are used to new technologies. This reminded me of two questions people ask me constantly:
1) Why are you “into old people”? I have heard this question more often than I could expect, which also taps into a certain widespread ageism…
2) Don’t you think this problem (of an age-based digital divide) will be solved within one generation?
First of all, I am interested in aging in a life course perspective; I have also studied use and non-use amongst young adults. Second, not quite. I am not a futurologist, but I think we deceive ourselves into believing that our generation will not have these problems, because we grew up with touchscreen devices and the Web. My research suggests two ideas that might help deconstruct the aforementioned assumption:
1. The technology of today is not the technology of tomorrow, specially in the fast-paced realm of ICTs.
2. As we age, our needs, bodies, and abilities also change.
The fast development of ICTs implies changing demands on digital literacy and critical skills, which are linked to socioeconomic dimensions. Technology is also socially shaped: i.e., there are social and ideological choices embedded in the design and implementation of any technology. Most technologies are not generally designed for older adults, since young people are the usual target demographic, and the most avid consumers of new technology.
To give an example of this process, at TAGlab we developed an accessible communication app for frail and other older adults called InTouch. However, even though we tried to create an accessible app with large fonts, large icons, and an intuitive interface, we had problems with the hardware as soon as we deployed InTouch. The tablets were too heavy for some of our participants (a few only had the use of one hand, being stroke survivors) and most could not find the side on/off button, due to dexterity and motor issues. We had to paint it with nail polish to help them find the buttons.
In brief, I actually think we will face similar problems. It is crucial, therefore, to continue to look at how technology can be developed for and with older adults – their agency has to be taken seriously in the design and implementation of technology.
I was on “The Agenda with Steve Paikin” on Wednesday. It was a panel about loneliness with a wonderful group of guests, including THE amazing Louise Hawkley from the University of Chicago. The host was great and the producer was even greater. It was my first TV interview in Canada (and I was a bit nervous), but it was an interesting experience. It made me realize that my training as an academic (or a bad academic, I must say) is not really suited for these media panels. I’ve been interviewed for TV before, mostly in Portugal and Brazil, but in different formats. Homo academicus are used to long debates and are always cautious about clear-cut relationships and unidimensional models of causality – i.e., saying that one factor causes something, since there is always a dynamic interplay of factors, which are often hard to disentangle. We say “there’s a positive association”, “data suggests”, “results are interesting”, and so on. Likewise, it’s extremely hard to say that “the research tells us that” without providing a long list of references.
Based on this particular experience, I realized that I need to be able to explain several complex concepts in 60 seconds (the ‘elevator pitch’ is a useful metaphor here). So, allons-y, my first written attempt:
1. Technological determinism – the idea that technology is the only cause or condition for social change, which also means that its consequences are inevitable and completely independent of us. Technology is the sole driver and powerful force of humankind. When we talk about the “bronze age”, the “stone age” or the “Facebook age”, we are saying that technology is the main engine of human history and that there is nothing else. This perspective is known as technological determinism (there’s actually hard and soft technological determinism, but I’ll leave it to another time) and it is rejected by most sociologists of technology, because a myriad of factors influence social change (e.g., social, psychological, cultural, economic, etc.). And those factors are often intertwined with technology, because technologies are human and social tools. A pencil is also a technology. In fact, technologies are part of society — they are socio-technical systems — meaning that several social factors already influence its design, implementation, use, and evolution. A famous historical example is the development of the QWERTY keyboard: it was not designed to be optimal or efficient, but to minimize typing speed since typists were fast and constantly jamming the keys. But as the QWERTY layout was accepted by IBM and other companies, people got used to it and it became the standard keyboard. This is not to say that technology does not shape or affect us, of course it does, but we also shape and affect technology. For instance, the adoption of any technology depends on a specific social context – that social context can discourage or encourage adoption and will affect both its usage and effects.
2. Scientific cherry picking - picking one study that supports your argument and ignoring a boatload of other studies. This is visible with the use of the “Internet paradox” of Robert Kraut and colleagues (1998) or the “Alone Together” of Sherry Turkle (2011), when discussing the relationship between Internet use and sociability or social connectedness. For example, Bob Kraut and colleagues published in 1998 a longitudinal study (73 households during 1995-1996) showing that using the Internet for communication purposes was associated with declines in communication with family members in the household, decreases in the size of social networks, and increases in depression and loneliness. Although several scholars criticized the selection of the participants and the fact that Internet users at the time were newbies, not having most of their social ties online, this study became a paradigm of the social effects of the Internet. However, the results were revisited in a follow-up study (1998–1999) by the same authors. In the “Internet Paradox Revisited”, Kraut and colleagues (2002) studied the long-term impact of Internet use on members of the original sample and found that the negative effects were no longer observable. Interestingly, their original study is constantly cited and mentioned by media pundits – and scholars alike – but their 2002 study is often forgotten. To conclude, two important points here: first, science is made of constant replication (one study is not enough), and 2) we can only know if scientific results are well grounded and good (valid and reliable) when we consider how the study was done (methodology), including how the participants were selected (sampling), how the data was collected, and what tools were used to analyze that data. The “scientific halo effect” is also cleverly used to enhance cherry picking — just mention one study conducted by a Professor from MIT or Harvard and that always seems to be enough to convince others. Fortunately, good science works hard at avoiding (or trying to avoid) cognitive biases.
Note: Although this would not be part of my elevator pitch and it’s a simple descriptive indicator, I looked at the number of citations each paper has on Google Scholar and even when adjusting for the different publication dates (first paper was published in 1998, second one in 2002), the original article is considerably cited more often in the last 10 years (click to enlarge):
3. Impression Management – It’s what we do to make others see us the way we want others to see us (usually in a good light). Impression management efforts are the techniques, practices, and actions that we use to control our we present ourselves and how we act in social environments. The way I dress, walk, and talk to a co-worker or a friend, are often crafted to convey a certain persona. So, the common belief that there is only “impression management” online (or on Facebook) is quite interesting, because we are always crafting personas for public consumption – be it online or offline.
4. Difference between a friend and an online contact – An online contact is someone you add online, for instance, to Facebook or Twitter. A friend is someone you share something with, besides an electronic link. You can have, of course, a virtual friend, i.e., someone that you share and feel close to online. But an online contact is not necessarily a friend: we tend to use adjectives to qualify our friends, when someone says: “He’s my Facebook friend” we know that the expression sets a tone for that type of relationship, which is different from “He’s my friend” or “He is my best friend”. When I talk about social connectedness, I talk about meaningful social relationships; those relationships that bring us joy, satisfaction, and support. The evidence overwhelmingly shows that when the Internet is used for communication, it has positive effects on social connectedness (at least, so far, controlling for a variety of sociodemographic factors, and even for “socially isolated” groups). By overwhelming evidence I am referring to the abundant and systematic research done in the last ten years (+50 worldwide studies…would be dying to list all the references at this moment). Now, the Internet might have positive or negative individual effects depending on how it is used: if you use the Internet mostly for individual entertainment, you can’t expect your levels of social connectedness to increase (e.g., several studies about introverted people show that they mainly use the Internet for entertainment; contrary to the idea that they use it for communication in order to compensate for their perceived low social skills). Having said that, there are issues that I anticipate will affect social connectedness in the future – hypotheses that have to be, of course, properly tested – such as privacy issues or cyberbullying.
How did it go? A bit long still, but I’ll work on it.
Ron Baecker and I were interviewed for a CBC radio special with Jesse Hirsh. We talked about social isolation and loneliness among older adults, and what we are developing and testing at TAGlab to help reduce it.
Our research was highlighted in a CBC news piece entitled “How Skype and email could help seniors to avoid loneliness – and an early death”, and the radio show is available here.
Although there was no time to explain the difference between social isolation and loneliness on air, I should emphasize that difference here. In a multidimensional perspective, social isolation can be defined as a lack of quality, and/or quantity of social ties, low levels of participation in social activities, loneliness, as well as a lack of social support or social capital (Cornwell & Waite, 2009; Baecker et al., 2014). Loneliness is defined as a subjective feeling of isolation, of not belonging, or of lacking companionship (Perissinotto et al., 2012). Social isolation may lead to feelings of loneliness, but loneliness does not depend on social isolation per se: an individual can have a vast social network, but feel lonely, or not feel lonely even though they only have a small social network (Masi et al., 2011).
- Baecker, R., Neves, B., Sellen, K., Crosskey, S., & Boscart V. (2014, October 21). Technology to reduce social isolation and loneliness. Paper presented at ASSETS ’14: Proceedings of the 16th international ACM SIGACCESS conference on computers & accessibility, Rochester, New York. doi:10.1145/2661334.2661375
- Cornwell E. Y., & Waite, L. J. (2009). Social disconnectedness, perceived isolation, and health among older adults. Journal of Health and Social Behavior, 50(1), 31-48.
- Masi, C., Chen, H. Y., Hawkley, L., Cacioppo, J. (2011). A meta-analysis of interventions to reduce loneliness. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 15(3), 219-266.
- Perissinotto, C. M., Cenzer, S., Covinsky, K. E. (2012). Loneliness in older persons: A predictor of functional decline and death. Archives of Internal Medecine, 172(14), 1078-1083
My talk was based on the following claim: non-Internet use, be it involuntary or voluntary, can be a form of social inequality, when it excludes people from accessing a set of socio-economic benefits (e.g., online communication opportunities, online services, etc.) and excludes people from a social and public dimension of contemporary societies (e.g., online sociability and public participation, public services migrated to online-only, etc.). I mostly focused on my research with older adults (65+), although mentioning my work with young people as well. I also used quantitative and qualitative data from my doctoral research to show how social capital decreases with age, but how older adults that are daily Internet users are more likely to have higher levels of social capital when comparing to older moderate, light, and non-users. In addition, I addressed the main challenges faced by older adults in adopting and using the Internet, the importance of intergenerational relationships, and the crucial role of critical digital literacy to overcome some of the potential risks and concerns with the ‘online’ world.
I had a great time in Passo Fundo, and met the Brazilian senator Paulo Paim, who authored the Brazilian bill of rights of seniors, known as the “Elderly Statute”. Here is a picture of us:
I gave a few interviews as well. Here is an excerpt of one of my TV interviews; this was shot after my long trip to Brazil, so please forgive my tired-looking eyes (in Portuguese):
Thank you, University of Passo Fundo. A special thanks to Professor Adriano Pasqualotti, for inviting me and making me feel so welcome in Brazil. Muito obrigado!
Hoje vou escrever em Português. Os meus seguidores que não falam a língua de Camões que me perdoem, mas é um assunto que tem que ser debatido na minha língua.
Em Portugal, o diploma sobre a co-adopção entre casais do mesmo sexo foi hoje chumbado no parlamento. Este projecto lei (do PS) tinha sido aprovado no plenário no ano passado, embora os projectos (do BE e do PEV) sobre adopção plena por casais do mesmo sexo tivesse sido reprovado. A justificação mais ouvida entre oponentes (e a mais divulgada nos sites de redes sociais) é a seguinte: é necessário garantir o “superior interesse da criança”.
Esta ideia do “superior interesse da criança” não passa de uma posição dogmática, ideológica, demagógica e falaciosa. Investigação de décadas de várias disciplinas científicas sobre a adopção de crianças por casais homossexuais é clara e aqui vão os seus entendimentos:
2. American Psychology Association – www.apa.org/about/policy/parenting.aspx
3. American Academy of Pediatrics – http://tinyurl.com/cjopvj5 (Peço desculpa por ter criado um tinyurl, mas o link era bastante extenso e eu não o queria embebido directamente)
4. American Anthropological Association
5. Last, but not least, American Sociological Association.
Esta lista que compilei não engloba apenas ciência sociais, mas também ciências da saúde, como a pediatria. Não me foquei apenas na Sociologia, embora esta tenha vindo a demonstrar sistematicamente que a heteronormatividade é uma forma de opressão e de discriminação de pessoas que não se enquadram nessa norma social, porque queria deixar um leque alargado de campos científicos. Espero que estes vários campos e seus entendimentos colectivos venham desconstruir posições não fundamentadas cientificamente sobre o bem-estar de crianças adoptadas por casais do mesmo sexo.
Para terminar, gostava de relembrar o artigo 13º da nossa constituição que versa sobre o princípio da igualdade:
1. Todos os cidadãos têm a mesma dignidade social e são iguais perante a lei.
2. Ninguém pode ser privilegiado, beneficiado, prejudicado, privado de qualquer direito ou isento de qualquer dever em razão de ascendência, sexo, raça, língua, território de origem, religião, convicções políticas ou ideológicas, instrução, situação económica, condição social ou orientação sexual.
Portanto, a questão da co-adopção e adopção de crianças entre casais do mesmo sexo é um direito humano e um direito constitucional.
I am co-organizing two RC06 (Commitee on Family Research) sessions for the XVIII International Sociological Association World Congress (2014, Japan).
1. “ICT & Family Life” with Claúdia Casimiro:
This session critically explores the intersection between family life and the use of Information and Communication Technologies (ICT). The contemporary family is progressively a networked family through a variety of digital technologies (Rainie & Wellman, 2012). A Pew report concluded, in 2008, that American families were using the Internet and mobile phones to coordinate their lives, to be connected throughout the day, and to bond and share moments online. Is this a cross-cultural behavior? What challenges does this connectedness bring in family routines, relationships, norms, work, intimacy, and privacy?
This session aims to address two main broad questions: How do ICT affect and shape contemporary families? and, How do families, in turn, shape ICT? We welcome both theoretically informed and empirically grounded papers that cover a range of themes in relation to family life and ICT, including but not limited to the following:
- Uses and roles of ICT in family life
- ICT and family time, family norms, family routines/rituals, family relationships, or transnational families
- Domestication of technology
- Meanings, identities, and performances
- Public vs. private/collective vs. individual spheres
- Social capital
- Designing technology for families
- Networked households
- Work/life balance
- Intimacy and autonomy
- Online dating
2. “Facing an Unequal World: Social Capital and Families in a Cross-Cultural Perspective” with Fausto Amaro:
This session explores the role of families in the production, accrual, and reproduction of social capital. Social capital is a multidisciplinary concept with a variety of definitions, but it broadly refers to the resources embedded in our social ties/communities. It has been associated with a variety of positive outcomes, from status attainment to alleviation of poverty. Those with a higher level of social capital seem to have more professional and social opportunities, and to be better off. So, what is the relationship between family life and social capital? How do families contribute to the creation and maintenance of social capital? Do they create specific types of social capital? How does the diversity of contemporary family forms affect social capital? Can families and social capital help us to overcome crises and an unequal world? Or do they reinforce inequalities?
Both theoretical and empirical proposals that cover a range of themes in relation to family and social capital in a cross-cultural perspective are welcome, including but not limited to the following topics: Access and mobilization of social capital; Reproduction of social capital; Dimensions of social capital; Bonding social capital; Bridging social capital; Stratification and social capital; Individual and collective-level social capital; Measurement of social capital; Implications of social capital for family life; Violence and social capital; and, Dark side of social capital.
On-line abstracts submission:
June 3, 2013 – September 30, 2013 24:00 GMT.
A direct submission link will be provided in due course.
Here is a full list of the ‘Committee on Family Research’ sessions.
Please help spread the word
Anita Sarkeesian is a feminist pop culture critic who produces a fantastic web series of video commentaries from a feminist/fangirl perspective at Feminist Frequency. She started a kickstarter project to raise money to fund a new video project, which aims to explore, analyze, and deconstruct some of the most common tropes and stereotypes of female characters in games.
But then the project was subjected to a well-coordinated online harassment effort (by various online video game forums) to take it down. This effort included hate speech on Anita’s Youtube channel, attempts to flag Anita’s videos as “terrorism”, vandalism on her wikipedia page, and the common threatening messages: from typical sexist jokes to threats of violence and sexual assault. Anita has archived a sample of these messages. Here are some examples of the sexist vitriol:
I am speechless…
The only “positive” side of this torrent of comments is that it exposes sexism and misogyny, and ridicules this group of individuals. BTW, Anita not only got the $6,000 she was asking for on kickstarter, she got $44,000 and counting. And there are a lot of male backers as well.
I also found two other very interesting websites of female online gamers that decided to post all the blatant and insidious sexist comments they get when playing: Not in the Kitchen Anymore and Fat, Ugly, or Slutty.
Some of my friends & colleagues suggested that this online harassment does not parallel the “real” world, it is not “real”, and it is only waged by a small and non-representative group of trolls. This is not my field, but the research that I could find online has shown, nonetheless, that online harassment is real and widespread.
Susan Herring (2002) shows that women are mainly the victims of online harassment cases (84%). Such as with the traditional harassment, males tend to be the perpetrators, whereas females tend to be the victims. As Herring (2002) states: “For many female Internet users, online harassment is a fact of life”.
Biber, Doverspike, Baznik, Cober, & Ritter (2002) surveyed 270 undergraduate students in the US, to explore their responses to online gender harassment in the academia. Findings indicate differences in the perception of sexual harassment by media, i.e. traditional classroom setting versus online. Interestingly, the participants had the same or stronger standards for online behavior: misogynist comments were seen as more harassing online, whereas requests for company were seen as more harassing in the traditional setting. Women also rated online pictures and jokes as significantly more harassing than men, while men rated jokes as more harassing in the traditional setting. Despite these gender differences, the study shows that online harassment is taken seriously by both genders. Women, in particular, seem to be more cautious about sexually explicit online pictures and jokes.
Online harassment not only affects high-profile individuals, such as Anita Sarkeesian or Kathy Sierra (a famous blogger that was continuously harassed and threatened to death), but women in general. According to the Working to Halt Online Abuse, from 2000 to 2011, 72.5% of the 3,393 individuals that reported online harassment were female (22.5% male, 5% unknown). Men also face online harassment, but mostly for being gay or seeming gay (Citron, 2011).
There are different forms of online harassment or hate, but even the “less extreme forms”, such as facebook groups named “I know a silly little bitch that needs a good slap”, can create an environment of fear, distress, and subservience (Citron, 2011).
In the specific online gaming setting, Staci Tucker (2011) studied griefing and masculinity in online games. As she explains: “Griefers derive pleasure from causing havoc and distress, with little or no ludic gain and often at the expense of their own in-game characters. Griefing can manifest as hate speech, team-killing, virtual rape, unprovoked violence, or theft of virtual currency or items. Griefers are often powerful players, trolls, or even game masters, and can terrorize online communities, as their tactics are difficult to deter and punish” (Tucker, 2011:97-98). Staci suggests that the game industry hasn’t been able to efficiently confront harassment and hate speech in online games, because the main type of player is male, white, and heterosexual.
So misogyny is alive and kicking: “misogyny has by no means gone away, it has instead moved online. The Internet’s easy opportunities for anonymity have a lot to do with it. Bigots act destructively online because they believe that they will not get caught. The Internet has become the place where people can express misogyny with little personal cost. It is the new frontier for hate” (Citron, 2011).
How can we deal effectively with online harassment? Is there any other recent relevant scientific literature?
Please leave me your comments & references below.
Oh dear! May is almost over! Seriously, where did it go?
I wrote a blog post about how my work on technology – on ICT usage, to be more precise – intersects with family. Here it goes: “The family factor“. Enjoy – I hope ;p
Fausto Amaro and I just published our article “Too old for technology? How the elderly of Lisbon use and perceive ICT” in the Journal of Community Informatics, edited by fabulous Gene Loeb & Michael Gurstein.
It is an article based on our study of ICT usage and perception by the Portuguese elderly. Here, we explore concepts of technophobia and ageism, and we develop the concept of “faux-users”.
What is a faux-user? It is a person that considers himself or herself a non-user but intermittently uses a technology with assistance of others.
During the qualitative phase of the study, we found elderly people that although do not use the Internet (and report not using it) directly, use it indirectly with the assistance of others.
Ana is 70 years old, she has no formal education, she is currently a retired servant, and lives alone. Ana has a daughter and a baby grandchild living in Paris. She has never met her grandchild in person. Ana sees pictures of them on a family member’s computer (sent by her daughter via email) and communicates with her daughter in Paris through Skype, a peer-to-peer video conferencing program. Ana’s family members in Portugal setup the computer and the Internet for her so she can communicate with her family in Paris:
“In these moments, there is always someone with me at the computer, because I’m afraid of touching something and ruin it. I can’t read, so I don’t know what the words mean. But I can see them and talk to them. And they can see me and talk back to me…it’s amazing!”
Clara is 74 years old, and she is a retired domestic with primary school education. She lives with her husband and three grandchildren. One of her grandchildren, Matilde, is studying abroad in Milan. Clara speaks regularly with her grandchild through Skype, which is setup by her other grandchildren. They show her pictures of Milan and pictures of Matilde on facebook. But like Ana, Clara never touches the computer and depends on her grandchildren to set the computer up for her.
So, these faux users are making indirect use of these technologies and benefiting from them.
This was, definitely, a curious finding for us. It was something that we could not grasp from our survey research of 500 elderly people, but that was possible to grasp during the qualitative interviews.
Please check the article and leave me your feedback. All comments are highly appreciated!
Note: I found recently that the World Internet Project (WIP) uses the term “proxy-users” to refer to people who look for information online on behalf of others (WIP, 2010, pg. 10-11, 23, 28; Dutton & Helsper, 2007, pg. 4, 48, 51-52), but I found other WIP publications that seem to use the concept to refer to the non-users who get help from others (WIP Chile, 2005; OberCom, 2009). In the first case, WIP Poland reports “The most popular proxy-user is a child -2/3 of those non-users who have Internet access at home, ask this child for help or the child tells them about Internet on their own initiative” (WIP, 2010:28). However, I could not find an “official” definition of proxy-user.
Dutton, W., & Helsper, E. (2007). The Internet in Britain: 2007. Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford.
WIP Chile. (2004). World Internet Project Chile 2003/2004.
WIP Poland. (2010). World Internet Project Poland. Agora SA & TP Group.
WIP Portugal. (2010). A utilização de Internet em Portugal 2010.