Older People’s Attitude Towards Mobile Communication in Everyday Life: Digital Literacy and Domestication Processes

  • Francesca ComunelloEmail author
  • Simone Mulargia
  • Francesca Belotti
  • Mireia Fernández-Ardèvol
Conference paper
Part of the Lecture Notes in Computer Science book series (LNCS, volume 9193)


Older people’s attitude towards mobile communication constitutes a privileged perspective for analyzing domestication processes of digital technologies. By means of a qualitative case study conducted in Italy, we study older users’ motivations and usage practices. We focus on perceptions of mobile phones, adoption and domestication of mobile phones, as well as on usage skills. Participants, aged 60 to 95 years old, typically started to make use of mobile telephony in mid 1990 s and they mainly described a utilitarian approach to the mobile device even though there are cases of anthropomorphization. With a variety of profiles, from assisted to advanced users, those not having smartphones sometimes see touchscreen as challenging. They describe different learning strategies, which are shaped by personal interests. Finally, some participants adopt more sophisticated devices while others decide to slow down their relationship with mobile phones.


Mobile telephony Older people Domestication Learning strategies 

1 Background

Mobile technology plays an increasing role in everyday interpersonal communication, representing a useful resource for different age cohorts. A wide number of publications deal with the usage of mobile phones by younger people: mobile phones re-place their personal interactions [1], are tools of emancipation from the family and facilitate social cohesion in the peer group [2]. Young people have created and implemented new communication practices [3], so that the appropriation of mobile telephony is commonly perceived as a juvenile phenomenon. Yet, the usage by older people is worthy to be studied as well, firstly because in European societies older population is steadily growing [4]. The age structure of the population will change, with an increasing share of over 65 and a declining share of younger and working age persons [5]. Thus, focusing on the elderly and their use of the mobile phone means considering an increasingly growing section of the European population.

Furthermore, the relationship between the elderly and the mobile phone is interesting because it is the most popular information and communication technology (ICT) among older people, who show the lowest levels of ICT adoption. Thus, it is important to explore the relationship older people have with mobile telephony, considering that ageing shapes physical characteristics, basic abilities, communication habits and the choice of media. Several studies show that the elderly might face cognition and reading capacity challenges [6, 7], or problems in handling small devices and using messaging services [8, 9]. Nevertheless, mobile phone adoption keeps growing among the elder, while it is common for them to incorporate innovative communicative practices [10].

2 Theoretical Framework

All these aspects justify a special focus on seniors’ relational and communication practices that show a relevant role of mobile phones both for personal safety and for social interaction. Age, thus, appears as a key factor affecting mobile phone’s adoption and usage style [11]. Seniors are individuals who have been introduced to mobile communication late and mainly under the “pressure” coming from their closed social circle [12]. Nowadays, as society shifts towards networked individualism [13] and networked sociability [14], older people keep up and experience new patterns of sociability built on me-centered networks [15] that are growingly enabled by mobile technologies.

2.1 Domestication

In order to analyze older people’s acquisition and consumption of mobile phone technology and their usage of mobile phone in everyday life we mainly rely on the domestication approach [16, 17, 18]. Paraphrasing Silverstone and Haddon [17] we can assume that mobile phones are more than merely machines. They can be considered cultural artifacts, whose meaning emerges at the intersection of technical features and ongoing processes of social understanding. The process which leads to mobile phone’s incorporation into everyday life [19] is particularly evident considering older people experiences, because they have a precise memory of their first contact with this technology and can therefore offer a rich and detailed narration of their acquisition process.

According to the domestication approach, mobile phone (as other different information and communication technologies such as television and the Internet) undergoes a preliminary process of appropriation by users, characterized by the production of an analysis that (can) lead to the acquisition of the mobile phone. In this early phase users try to figure out how ICTs can play a role in everyday routines. Then we observe the incorporation process, related to the physical location of the mobile phone within the users’ home and when they carry it with themselves, as this is a portable device. Spatial constraints (such as the lack of signal) contribute to influence users’ choices; nevertheless, other elements must be taken into account in this process, such as aesthetic reasons or health concerns. The objectification is related to users’ everyday practices as it considers how technology use takes its own place in users’ daily routines. Objectification has therefore to be considered in relation to time structures and time constraints which constitutes limits in users’ action. Everyday usage is not only connected with users’ time budget, but also with time organization and users’ perception of free time availability. The conversion process addresses how the presentation of technology produced by the users, and their reflections on ICTs’ meanings contributes to the definition of users’ identity. Users, for instance, tend to embed ICTs into their impression management strategies; this concern about the public image of the individual as an ICT user can even lead to non adoption phenomena in some cases [20, 21].

According to the domestication approach, mobile phone adoption and usage must be analyzed considering the role of users’ relational networks. The lack of support from users’ social networks is, for instance, a key element to understand nonadoption. Without that potential source of motivation and help for using ICTs, in fact, users in general (and older people in particular) can simply think that ICTs are not for them [21]. On the other hand, users’ inclusion in dense social networks is a factor that can foster adoption processes.

Mobile phone usage in everyday life has been studied in relationship with, among others, two fundamental dimensions: safety and security issues and microcoordination [22, 23]. According to Ling [24] mobile phone everyday usage is often related to a sense of safety and security, especially for older people and for users affected by a chronic sickness. When coming to be integrated in everyday life, mobile phone offers a powerful tool to organize users communication and meetings on a real time basis, enabling a potential rearrangement of trips destination [22].

Even though both mobile phone usage in everyday life and domestication processes have a well-established tradition of studies, such theoretical perspectives should be considered as an evolving framework. When launched, mobile phone was considered a communication tool for businesspersons (among others, due to its high cost). However, nowadays it has reached almost all the population and the number of users is still growing. The domestication steps can be placed in a logical sequence, but we can not assume that all the stages are entered sequentially by all users [20, 24]. Differences among users belonging to specific age cohorts, gender, and living in different socio-cultural and country contexts also play a role in differentiating everyday usage practices.

2.2 Digital Literacy

Digital literacy is key in shaping adoption and practices of mobile phone use, which can constitute a factor both of inclusion and of exclusion from the mobile communication environment. In our analysis we refer to a broad understanding of digital literacy, that stresses multiple dimensions, including the social and relational aspects experienced by users in their everyday life [25, 26, 27]. More specifically, van Deursen and van Dijk [28] propose a framework for analyzing digital skills that includes: operational skills (the skills to operate digital media); formal skills (the skills needed to handle the specific structures of digital media); information skills (the skills to search, select and evaluate information in digital contexts); strategic skills (the skills to employ the information contained in digital media as a means to reach a specific goal). Even if his main focus is devoted to a computer-centric environment, Warschauer [29], on the other hand, underlines the role of interpersonal communication-related skills (computer-mediated communication literacy), as a central element for digital literacy.

Our understanding of digital literacy is also rooted in “second level” digital divide theories, that abandon any dichotomous vision (often refusing the very label of “digital divide”), and don’t consider technology acquisition as a linear, unidimensional process [29, 30]. Following early research on technology adoption, we also recognize that technology adoption and usage are deeply related to motivation, on the one hand, and to literacy, on the other hand. In such a complex process, early research has underlined the role of so-called technology “want nots” [31], including technology “dropouts” (people who were using technology, but stopped to do so).

Following both the domestication perspective and the digital literacy framework, we also underline the role of personal networks in technology adoption and usage: a rich relational network does not only provide motivations for using digital technology (and, more specifically, mobile phones); it can also provide support in technology usage, both at an operational and at a strategic level.

3 The Research Project

The goal of this paper is to analyze the usage of mobile phones by the elderly in Italy. Why and how do older people use mobile phone? How do they adopt and domesticate the device in their everyday life? What is the level of competence and autonomy they have gained in handling the mobile phone? Due to such exploratory objectives and for considering the specific circumstances of the research context, we adopted a qualitative research strategy facilitating a flexible and interactive design [32, 33].

We conducted 51 semi-structured interviews in Rome and in a mid-sized town in Umbria (central Italy), between October 2013 and February 2014. Participants are both men and women from different sociocultural backgrounds. Their age varies between 60 and 95, thus considering elderly a non-homogenous group. We take into account different age segments, including individuals entering retirement and redefining their personal autonomy. All interviews have been recorded, transcribed and subjected to thematic analysis focusing on the following dimensions: personal characteristics; personal networks; adoption of mobile telephone; consumption patterns of mobile devices; used mobile services; location and mobility of mobile telephone; current mobile characteristics; attitude and opinions towards mobile technology.

4 Results and Discussion

The purchase of the first mobile phone happened, in most cases, about twenty years before the interview. It is the result of different trajectories of acquisition. Some participants, for instance, declared to have a precise idea about their special need for a mobile phone, perceived as a communication tool to be used for work or as a device able to foster a sense of safety and security. “The first [mobile phone]? I took a mobile phone thanks to a Coca Cola’s commercial promotion about twenty years ago. I needed it, also to listen to … I mean, while in the street … something could happen. It was for security reasons” (M. Male, 60).

On the other hand, some respondents did not play an active role in choosing to purchase a mobile phone. In some cases, they received it as a gift, or a dismissed device from their relatives. “I think it was in June 2000. Very late, because mobile phones were already on the hype. It was a Philips; it was very heavy. So, in June 2000 I had my first mobile phone, they gave it to me as a gift, they literally imposed it on me” (E. Male, 60).

Apart from these utilitarian motivations, some participants claim they perceived a sort of social pressure on buying a mobile phone. Acquiring the mobile phone was, in participants’ words, a way to connect them to a broader social trend. This sense of obligation played a role also in delaying the first purchase. “We decided not to buy a mobile phone; we decided not to yield to the temptation of modern times. […] Then, technology went on […] It seemed it was only a question of being fashionable, being “in” or “out”. Twenty-five years ago, mobile phone was a real status symbol. I did not want to be among “those who”.” (M. Male, 63) “Honestly, I would not say that we needed a mobile phone. Purchasing it, was a way to align ourselves to some evolutions. Then, once you have a mobile phone, the need to have it is created” (C. Male, 79).

Acquisition and appropriation processes described by older users tend to be not linear and, in some cases, even explicitly conflicting. “Because of our age, we had “a fight with” the advent of new technologies. But, slowly, if you have a little bit of common sense, you can learn to use them, and you can even learn to manage them” (T. Male, 70).

After an initial feeling of discomfort related to mobile phone use, a majority of participants show high levels of integration of the mobile phone in their everyday routines, even if they cannot be considered as high level users. “Among positive aspects [of having a mobile phone] I love receiving calls when, for instance, I am on the beach. That still seems to me a big novelty. Before, we cannot receive calls when on the beach” (I. Female, 84).

The more the mobile phone is integrated in everyday routines, the more it becomes a useful tool to manage everyday communications. “I usually use the mobile phone to manage contacts with artisans, for instance, the chimney sweeper. In the last months, we needed a lot of artisans to work on our house, and I called them with the mobile phone” (D. Female 62).

Some participants express a sort of emotional connection with the mobile phone. When talking about it, some users tend to ascribe human characteristics to the device. It emerges that mobile phone has undergone a process of anthropomorphization. This process signals a high level of intimacy with the mobile phone [34] and, in some occasions, it can be considered as a strategy the users employ in order to face the stress caused by mobile phone’s adoption [35, 36]. “[Where should the mobile phone be switched off?] Where it can get under someone’s skin. But, I mean, poor thing, if he is closed, he cannot do that.” (N. Female, 87) “[Mobile phone] is very important, in my opinion. You feel relaxed because there is a mate, through which you can reach whatever” (B. Female, 67).

When considering mobile phone usage skills, participants can be positioned on a continuum, ranging from basic level usage skills (people using their device only for phone calls, sometimes without being able to access and use their phone book), to advanced skills (respondents showing high familiarity with mobile internet, Apps, geolocalization, etc.). Most respondents can be positioned between the two extremes.

A first level of access to mobile technology can be related to basic operational skills [28]. More specifically, several users report experiencing physical constraints when using mobile phones: their sight and their hearing are mostly mentioned as problematic, but they also report problems related to using their fingers on such small devices. “[Do you always check who is calling before answering the phone?] Yes. Well, if I don’t wear my glasses, and I don’t see the person [sic]… it happens to me that I answer even to people I don’t wish to talk to.” (T2. Female, 66) “[Do you always carry your mobile with you or do you sometimes leave it at home or somewhere else?]. I carry it on my neck, because, by the way, I’m a little deaf, so, if it’s not on my neck I can’t hear it ” (P. Female, 70).

Constraints are not referred to as such: the participant does not complain about her limitations, but, instead, exposes the way in which she copes with them, adopting specific strategies in order to integrate the mobile phone in her everyday life, despite her physical handicap.

Some respondents, on the other side, explicitly mention “physical limits” referring them either to users themselves or to devices: “The mobile has the limit that displays are too small. It’s our physical limits.” (PS. Male, 67) “Yes, there are clearly some problems, because, as they have miniaturized everything […] You shift to these [new mobile phones] where you have such small buttons… you push to write something, but with our big fingers, you write another thing. Even the LED: if you are in the sunlight, you can’t see anything” (AB. Male, 62).

Such limitations are mentioned by the older-old as well as by some of the young-old in the study, particularly by those who have experienced a shift towards more advanced devices (and especially smartphones). Notably, participants tend to identify the smartphone with its interface: when talking about smartphones, they almost always use the English word touchscreen, often referring to it in a problematic way. User interfaces show their relevance not only in user experience, but also in user representation of technology. Moreover, while touchscreen is designed to be a “calm technology” [37], even young-old and well educated users appear to perceive them as a barrier for accessing more advanced services. “Well, my friends! When I see a friend who has a touch screen (sic)… how is it called? […] well I admire them because, even if some of them are older than me, I see that they handle this screen, like that, with their fingers […] I think it’s not for me!” (DG. Female, 69).

Technology adoption and skill acquisition do not appear as linear processes. Some users refer to have downgraded their mobile phone use, having given up the most advanced features (or having stopped using more advanced devices). This is normally related both to the constant evolution of mobile devices and applications, and to vital trajectories (some users, for instance, refer to the time they retired as the moment in which they stopped acquiring new digital skills). Such phenomena are consistent with the literature on technology acquisition, and particularly with the concept of “want nots”, as described by van Dijk [31]. “I’ve noticed that, since I retired, there has been somehow a regression: I used to use the PC in the office, and I’m stuck at that point… Well, there are many things I was able to do… I’m not able to do them anymore, I get angry and I give up.”(DG. Female, 69) “Well, at some point the mobile started to show some flaws, it started losing incoming calls, I tried to call and it didn’t work… So I bought a device that could only do phone calls.” (G. Male, 77)”Earlier, some years ago, I did everything with my old mobile phone. Then, do you know what? At some point […] I just forgot [how to do things], maybe on purpose. If I go and read the instruction book, I can maybe succeed, but I started focusing on other things and the phone just stays there”(PVT. Female, 79).

The mobile phone’s usability may facilitate learning processes, by supporting the acquisition of new knowledge procedures that are useful to operate and interact with the device properly [38]. Motivational issues may play an important role as well, because older adults are stimulated to use mobile phones and learn new functions if they perceive the need, usefulness or interest in improving their knowledge and know-how [39, 40]. “[…] the phone calls and all things I need, well, I know how to use them; and the things I do not need… seeing the Internet on the phone [is not necessary] for me, what’s more I am blind! [meaning that her sight is low].” (MG. Female, 67) “[…]the alarm clock, the calculator: no no, I do not use them! But I do not have a good relationship with the technical tools, so I learn just three things, the necessary ones, and those I make!” (PB. Female, 70).

One obvious problem for anyone using a mobile phone is approaching and handling a new device. If we consider that learning ability declines with age, while mobile phones rapidly evolve in their technological features and services, we can easily understand why the devices can be perceived as complex by elderly people, who might consider learning to use them as a difficult challenge [9]. “[…] considered my young age [ironic], when you switch from one phone to another, you might have some difficulty.”(NI. Female, 84)”The problem is that, as I was used to a slightly simpler device, this one is a bit more complicated, more complete. It has more functions than the other one. […] In writing messages, I felt better with the previous one” (PM. Male, 72).

Relevant differences in interviewees’ responses have been observed in relation to what can be defined as mobile phone-related “learning style”. Overall, the strategy to find out about new devices or functions seems to follow previous learning experiences, such as the scholastic one. “[…] in those rare occasions when you use it… “Why does it do so?”, “I don’t know”… I did not tolerate the answer “I don’t know” as a logic setting and as a learning culture. When I was young, you could not say “I don’t know” or “I don’t understand”: they were two banned phrases at school because, if you didn’t know, you admitted not having studied, and if you didn’t understand, you admitted being stupid. […] But now you realize [you have] almost infinite learning opportunities with these tools” (PS. Male, 67).

Participants face the learning challenge either by adopting an exploratory or a didactic approach. Some of them seem to follow a constructivist model of experiential learning [41, 42]. By assimilating new experiences into an already existing framework and accommodating their mistakes or failures, older people autonomously learn to use the telephone set. This is like an artifact that they appropriate by discovering how to manage it [43, 44]. They attempt to face a difficulty within an interactive and complex media environment, such as the mobile phone, and information acquired in this experience become readily viable in future problem solving. “When I had problems, somehow I resolved them. It took me a bit more time, but I got out of them […] Recently I had the problem that I had some photos, and I could not download them into the computer […] I did it on my own: I downloaded […] and I managed to put them on the computer […] It was a bit difficult, but I succeed! “(TE. Male, 69) “My wife is who usually asks me [for help]; then, […] I start trying until I find the solution, because these gadgets have their own logic; so just understand that!” (G. Male, 77).

Other respondents, on the contrary, seem to adopt an instructionist model, as they learn by means of an external transfer of knowledge. This approach is teacher-focused, skill-based, goal-oriented and not always interactive [45]. Users prefer to learn by consulting user’s manual – though blaming instructions for being not so intelligible – or “teachers” who can bring them specific advice to use mobile phone. “I don’t have the imagination to start reading the rules, I mean the [user’s manual] […] maybe you could use it more and have greater advantages. But compared to what I need, the game is not worth the candle! They should make [the instructions] a little bit more practical and synthetic, not [those] books!” (PG. Male, 67 “[Did you install the email on the phone by yourself?] No […] At the store […] I asked them to install all the things I needed […]. I got them also to explain me how I had to do, I even wrote it on a little note book, at the beginning; then now I no longer need to read it” (B. Female, 67).

Nevertheless, this latter attitude is not necessarily passive as it can be based on the interaction between “pupils” and “teachers”. In fact, many interviewees who adopt the instructionist approach usually turn into warm experts [46] for their peers. As personal social networks are a key element in adopting mobile phones and in acquiring the related usage skills, respondents mainly rely on younger family members who explain them how to use basic or advanced functions, thus transforming the teaching process in a socialization of subjec-tive knowledge [10]. “[Have you ever asked someone for help in using some function?] Yes, my grandson and my son. These are graduating in telephony as they go along!”(G. Male, 77)“[Have your grandchildren ever taught you to use the mobile phone?] Yes, in the early times. […] They taught me: “Grandma, here you push, here you switch on, here you know when you have used up money”… I even know that! You can imagine how good I am! […] After [they taught me], I do everything by myself.”\(NS. Female, 87).

Asking for help is particularly frequent among assisted users, who are only able to answer calls and hang up, who dial numbers directly as they are not able to use the phonebook, who do not use any service beyond voice communication and who leave the handset permanently in a fixed place to keep it safe [47]. Nevertheless, in these cases there is not a real interactive and cooperative learning situation [48]: when the younger relative helps the senior and achieves the goal of solving the device’s problem, the older user does not necessarily learn how to manage that situation, mainly because he or she is quite satisfied with the already acquired skills. “I have [the mobile phone] but it is at rest. […] [I use it] Very little. […] [At home], I keep it on this table […], I leave it there. […] Do you know when I do a call with the mobile phone? When I need to call my son-in-law, because I have all of his numbers: I just press a number, he has 2, 4 and 8. My daughter has 9 […] [And with your mobile phone do you only call or use other services?] Nothing else! Only calls […] It does not suit me!. […] [For example, storing numbers that correspond to your contacts: did you do it by yourself or did you ask someone for help?] My son-in-law did it for me. I would not know ever do such a thing.” (NN. Female, 86).

Overall, women tend to rely on their male spouse as they are influenced by gendered stereotypical (self)representation. In fact, participant women take for granted they are less likely to use digital technology and less competent, although they are actually building up intimate relationships with technology and are becoming advanced users [49]. Some men users refer to their partners as an example of lack of technological expertise; likewise, some women consider the male partner as a driver of innovation, even if their own level of usage skills and technological aptitude is not low. Consequently, women do not perceive any social expectation of competence and autonomy in the use of technology and, thus, are more inclined to ask men for help. “[Is there anyone else who uses you cell phone?] My husband […] [If you must change the settings, do you ask someone?] I do not know how to do anything with the mobile phone.” (I. Female, 84) “[Have you ever been asked to advise someone on how to use the mobile phone?] My wife, because she is more useless than me […]. Sometimes she is in trouble, she asks the children for help; but the children are always evasive or show her electronically, ta-ta-ta-ta, so that she cannot follow them. Thus, sometimes she turns to me, especially when she needs to send a text message” (T. Male, 69).

An exception to the rule of relying on relatives can be traced, however, in those interviewees who report not to rely on relatives for privacy reasons, sometimes preferring to turn to professional figures, such as the shopkeepers. “It is handled only by me; but if for example I have to configure it for browsing the Internet or receiving emails - I have a Smart Phone - I go to a specialized store that set it for me. [For example, your wife or your children, friends, colleagues… does it happen that they handle your mobile phone?] No, it is always under my close supervision!” (MVT. Male, 61).

In any case, once participants become familiar with the device, they feel more comfortable with it; so that in some cases they prefer to buy a new device similar to the previous one, to avoid extra learning costs. “As the other [device] broke down, now I bought one like that because I tend to buy similar mobile phones, so I don’t have to re-learn!” (T. Female, 66).

5 Conclusion

The mobile phone has already become an ordinary object among the 60 + years old participants of the study conducted in Italy. Interviews brought evidence of the four phases of the domestication process. Firstly, appropriation. We identified participants who bought their first mobile phone to avoid being out of the general adoption trend even though they did not feel the mobile as something needed in their lives. Yet, other participants did not make a decision on acquisition but received the handset (new or used) from a relative. Most of them had been using the mobile phone for twenty years. However, some of them, based in their peers’ experience, expressed their concerns towards moving into a touchsecreen device (i.e., smartphone). This can be interpreted as one of the steps of the analysis that may, or may not, end in the acquisition of a new device.

Secondly, incorporation. Physical condition might shape the location of the mobile phone when we consider it a wearable. When usability issues appear in the first stages of adoption they may lead to rejection of the tool. However, if the device is already part of everyday routines, specific strategies might arise. We understand this is the case of a 70 years old woman who decided to wear the mobile on her neck because she was “slightly deaf”.

Thirdly, objectification. Regardless of their skills, all the older participants report using mobile phones as a tool for managing everyday life activities. However, routines can change throughout time and individuals can decide either increasing use or reducing it, a decision that depends on personal interests and on the effort needed to operate the device. In addition, we found cases of anthropomorphization which denotes high degrees of intimacy with the device.

And fourthly, conversion. A particular result of this research is not only that women tended to define themselves as less skilled, but men also considered themselves more skilled than women, which denotes gendered stereotypical (self)representations.

Learning strategies in the case of mobile phones need to be permanently adapted, as ICTs are in constant evolution. Participants, in general, were attached to their previous learning experiences but described different learning strategies. Some took an exploratory approach, based on learning by doing; others preferred to rely on the users’ manual and follow its instructions. In any case, the personal network was important as it shaped the expectations and pressures any individual would face for adopting, in this case, mobile communication. More importantly, close relatives could bring support, either to assisted or to more advanced users. Finally, older individuals who acquired enough skills can turn into supporters (teachers) of their peers.

In sum, stages of domestication and learning strategies are not homogeneous, which confirms the need to approach the study of the relationship older people have with mobile telephony by taking into account their heterogeneity.


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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  • Francesca Comunello
    • 1
    • 3
    Email author
  • Simone Mulargia
    • 2
    • 3
  • Francesca Belotti
    • 2
  • Mireia Fernández-Ardèvol
    • 3
  1. 1.Dipartimento Di Scienze UmaneLumsa UniversitàRomeItaly
  2. 2.Dipartimento Di Comunicazione E Ricerca SocialeSapienza Università Di RomaRomeItaly
  3. 3.Mobile Technologies and (G)Local Challenges Research Group IN3Universitat Oberta de CatalunyaBarcelonaSpain

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