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The link between a lack of digital skills and loneliness has significant implications for communicators

We know that loneliness doesn't discriminate based on age, but its impact can be particularly profound on older individuals and those with chronic health conditions. As World Mental Health Day approaches (10 October), the spotlight shines on the pervasive issue of loneliness, which can significantly affect mental wellbeing.

A journey with my grandfather

With the increase in social media and the impact that it can have, designers of digital products must respond to the needs of these vulnerable groups and create solutions that foster connection and combat loneliness. How can designers of digital products respond to these groups - and make products that might help them? I went on a journey with my grandfather to determine whether technology could benefit him.

We know loneliness often leads to depression, anxiety, and a wide range of mental health issues. For people with disabilities or older adults, that lack of connection can amplify the feeling of isolation and loss of independence. This is what drove me to start my own research, with a very personal user to help me. Let me introduce Geoff, in his 90s, living alone and a self-proclaimed technophobe. Geoff is my grandfather and is a confident, socially capable man. Like many others, Geoff was impacted by the pandemic and the vulnerability and loneliness that came with it.

Can tech really help?

My grandfather is well known for his problem-solving skills, and I became curious about his enthusiasm for technology and tools and whether these could help relieve loneliness by improving communication and independence.

According to Nayyara Tabassum and the Centre for Aging Better, "in 2019, of the 4 million people in the UK who have never used the internet, 94% were aged 55 and over, 84% were over the age of 65, and 62% were over the age of 72."

With the increase in apps, products, and gadgets, many of these 'popular' products lack a deeper level of usability to assist those less confident or able to use technology to communicate. Past the age of 60, the adoption of technology and digital products decreases sharply. That's partly due to a fear of learning something new, the complexity of products and the cost.

Finding a solution

My questions for Geoff were based on how he kept in touch with friends and whether platforms such as Facebook for video were used to communicate. If not, I was curious about the challenges and what his generation liked about using digital tools.

To understand the challenges, Geoff was given two devices, one preloaded with Facebook Messenger and the other with WhatsApp. I encouraged Geoff to initiate contact on both platforms, create a message, insert a message and begin and end a call by video.

Geoff had a natural caution about technology; his perception transpired to be that he had never tried video calling or texting and was more familiar with emailing.

One insight was that although the technology was useful, getting family to commit to a time was tricky, so 'meetings’ with a scheduled time would be better.

For messages with more text, Geoff found the tablet easier as the screen and buttons were larger, and it was easier to read text and take photos.

How you can help

As a creator, what can you do to help combat loneliness? Consider inclusivity: how can your core demographic use this product, and how can they engage with other, perhaps older demographics or minorities?

There’s a real need to help build confident use of technology for all generations. Opening new opportunities for older generations and wider communities could help to remove loneliness for all ages, including 90-year-old Geoff, delivering benefits in mental health. More mindfulness towards minority groups in digital development could work wonders.

Article written by Charli Edwards, creative director at communications agency Cavendish Consulting

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