Behind Access: Why does the Chinese Rural Elderly not Use a Smartphone?


As the first level of the so-called ‘digital divide’, the physical access of ICTs has long been studied, while now many argue to move beyond physical access since it is ‘no longer’ a significant issue. However, for seniors in developing areas, such as rural China, physical access remains a ‘problem’ despite the falling price of ICTs. Moreover, studies that based on large-scale quantitative surveys show that demographical factors including income and education correlate strongly with physical access, but little has known on the deeper social, cultural and motivational causes behind the inequality of access. More importantly, haunted by technological determinism, there are still many studies assume that access can magically fix the problem without asking further about how does inequality of access articulate with other types of social inequality, and how the ‘problem of access’ is embedded within a historically and socially specific context. 

To fill the gap, this study attempts to examine the motivational factors behind the reasons why many Chinese rural seniors do not use smartphones, and how are their decisions shaped by their relations with others and other forms of social inequality. Taking an ethnographical approach, the author conducted 7 months’ fieldwork in two rural villages in Hubei, China in 2019. Seventeen seniors (above 63, 8 women and 9 men) were selected according to their family’s differential socio-economic status. Among the seventeen people, only two of them own a smartphone while all of their adult children own smartphones. Participant observation was conducted and the seniors were interviewed in semi-structured and unstructured ways. 

This study finds that the rural elderly’s decision on not using a smartphone is profoundly linked with the socially constructed meanings that associate with smartphone and age, their relational and relatively marginalized position in the family and the society, and their active avoidance in order to protect their self-esteem. More precisely, a) the smartphones are considered by the elderly (and others) as expensive, easy to break, extremely difficult to learn, mainly for entertainment and not suitable for aged physical condition and uneducated people. b) Since they often considered themselves as ‘useless’ to a family as well as the society, they try their best to be a contributor but not a burden. That means they will save money for younger generations in the family instead of purchasing a smartphone. Also, they found ‘playing’ (their word) the smartphone is guilty and unappropriated when they should be helping their family in the ways they still can (such as child-care). Similarly, they afraid to burden other people in the process of learning to use a smartphone. c) For many rural seniors, the smartphone is a constant reminder of their low education and poor physical condition (such as their poor eyesight, hearing and memory). Also, asking others for help is humiliating and demeaning. Therefore, to protect their self-esteem in such a context, not having a smartphone would be a much better idea.