Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore

The use of new media and the (ir)relevance of age in social science - issue#1

Age is no longer enough to explain how new media impact on society: empirical studies attention should be given also to variables such as gender, educational level and media experience


By Prof. dr. Eugène Loos, University of Amsterdam and Utrecht University


A new medium inevitably stirs up mixed reactions from society. Technology optimists, convinced that the new medium will solve a range of societal problems, feel certain that utopia is near. Technology pessimists predict that adoption of the new medium will produce dire consequences for society. Technology history shows a clear pattern: the introduction of a new medium such as the telegraph, the radio, the telephone, the PC and mobile ICT applications is viewed by many as a unique phenomenon, a revolution affecting our society in an extreme positive or negative way. Over the course of time, however, it then becomes evident that neither the technology optimists nor the technology pessimists had got the societal consequences of the new medium exactly right.
As information is supplied to a growing extent, and frequently solely, in digital form certain groups in our society (non-liners) risk being excluded from crucial information. Senior citizens are an example of such a group. Therefore, it is important to conduct empirical research to get insight into the (ir)relevance of age related to the way people from different generations deal with the introduction of a new medium as ICT. At the same time one should be critical about the use of age as the ultimate explanatory variable in social science research:
“Not only is it open to question whether age is the most appropriate variable for the topics which these researchers wish to investigate, it is also questionable whether the reported differences actually yield the insight claimed. Even if age should be an explanatory variable, simply reporting differences according to age is not enough. After analysing the effect in age differences, they should examine which theory should best be used to interpret the age effect” (Kronjee, G. (2003). Voorwoord. In A. Wagemakers & Y. Quispel (eds.), Verkenning van het gebruik van leeftijd in onderzoek. Utrecht: Landelijk Bureau Leeftijdsdiscriminatie).

So, in empirical studies attention should also be given to such variables as sex, educational level and media experience. It is also important to remain open to complementary theories which could offer an alternative view on the role of age …

The role of socialisation
Socialisation theory states that we are formed by the period in which they grow up. Socio-economic and political circumstances and the media available during their formative years shape their behaviour.

The role of life course
We pass through a number of stages during our lives that are marked by ‘life events’, such as going to school, leaving the parental home, having children, and collecting retirement benefits. Depending on the life stage we are in, we have a certain amount of time and interest in using a particular medium.

The influence of age-related functional limitations

As people grow older, however, there is no escaping the fact that age can start to play a certain role regarding the accessibility of the digital information supply, and that it then may be regarded as an explanatory variable. Biological developments during the life course affect our media use. Examples include age-related functional limitations owing to declining visual, hearing, cognitive and motor functions which affects so called ‘age-restricted users’. (Hawthorn, D. (2003). How Universal is good design for older users? Conference paper, ACM SIGCAPH Computers and the Physically Handicapped, Proceedings of the 2003 conference on universal usability issue, 73-74) Researchers and designers working on accessible interfaces would be wise to make a note of these and other insights where senior citizens are concerned.

Today’s new media will be obsolete by tomorrow …
New media continue to evolve
. Already, mobile technology allows us to communicate directly with other people and gain access to information, whenever and wherever. Yet today’s new media will be obsolete by tomorrow. History continues to repeat itself, as Marvin (1988) demonstrates so admirably in her book When old technologies were new with reference to the technological innovation that was electricity at the end of the 19th century. So, social science does not risk to run out of work in this field...