The second digital divide: older people and mobile phones for managing social relationships


Key functions of communication technologies are the organization and management of social relations and everyday situations. Within the media ecology that surrounds us, different channels could be used to the same purposes as people usually assess the option that best suits their communication needs and style. Thus, while Internet adoption rates in old age are growing at a fast pace (ITU, 2017), the second digital divide or the divide in uses and skills is persistent (van Dijk 2006). Thus, we study the changes in communication media used through the study of the tools used for two basic communication needs.

We explore this differentiated use of mobile phone among individuals aged 60 years and over in relation to the ecology of digital media. This study is part of a broader project that relies on a longitudinal approach and quantitative information gathered using an online survey. The survey was conducted in late 2016 and 2018 in 5 Countries, Austria, Canada Israel, Rumania and Spain. The samples were designed to be representative of the older online population living in each country in the first year of the study. They are all high or upper-middle-income countries (World Bank, 2018), and they are all in the global north. Thus, it is a timely question to understand the heterogeneity of the uses of mobile phones among older people. In addition, it will allow us to characterize the divide in uses, that is related to the second digital divide (van Dijk 2006).

For this paper, we make an in-depth analysis of two complementary questions. The questions explicitly articulated two concrete situations that can be integrated in (Granovetter, 1973) conceptualization of “weak” and “strong” ties. The first is related to contacting an old acquaintance, referring to (re)establishing discontinued social bonds. The second refers to changing the details of a dinner invitation, which points to a narrower time frame, the physical sharing of spaces and meals, and thus to closer and more intimate social bonds.

In general, the first year of the study the phone call stands out for both changing dinner invitations (96%) and contacting old acquaintances (91%), marking its predominance in the organization of informal life. The second most mentioned channel is instant messaging for the meal invitation change (80%); and email for contacting the old acquaintance (77%), although it changed between countries. The second year of the study, the variegated use of digital media increased in some countries, which will also be analyzed in relation to basic socio-demographic characteristics. Results show the differences in the second digital divide in the populations studied.


Eurostat: Individuals Internet use in the last 3 months [isoc_ci_ifp_iu]. 2018 data (Last update: 03-07-2019),

Granovetter, M. (1973). The Strength of Weak Ties. The American Journal of Sociology, 78(6), 1360–1380.

The World Bank (2019) World Bank country and lending groups.

van Dijk J (2006) Digital divide research, achievements and shortcomings. Poetics 34:221–235.