How do seniors use – or not use – cellphones?

In February, Barbara Crow will meet with her mother-in-law’s quilting bee in Peterborough, her mother’s synagogue friends in Victoria and a group of retirees in Duncan, British Columbia. She and co-researcher Kim Sawchuk of Concordia University want to know whether and how seniors use cellphones.

Right: Barbara Crow

“Many senior citizens use these mobile technologies, yet they are completely absent from any discussion on their use,” says Crow (BA Hons. ’84, MA ’86, PhD ’94), a communications and women’s studies professor and now associate dean of research for York’s Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies.

Seventy-two per cent of Canadians have access to cellphones, and wireless carriers offer coverage to more than 99 per cent of Canadians. More than a phone, it is increasingly versatile – the communications device of choice for sending text messages, taking photos, surfing the Internet, listening to music, playing games and updating a calendar.

The industry markets almost exclusively to youth and middle-aged professionals. And researchers studying cellphone use have also focused on the young and upwardly mobile.

Left: Kim Sawchuk

Crow and Sawchuk (PhD ’91) have begun preliminary research to find out if, how and why seniors are using mobile technologies. “We both have aging parents and we’ve been watching how cellphones are changing everyday lives,” says Crow. They have received a three-year standard Social Sciences & Humanities Research Council of Canada grant totalling $103,903 to complete this research by 2011.

“Individuals over 60 are soon going to make up a larger proportion of the population than youth,” says Crow, who has been studying digital technologies and their social, cultural, political and economic impact since the early 1980s.

“So many government services are online,” says Crow. Yet many older people, especially impoverished women, have no way to access those services. “Do we think because people can’t afford them, they shouldn’t have access to them?” The question is, “How can we ensure their needs are going to be served?”

Compared to other countries, information and communication technology services in Canada – including cellphone and Internet – cost more and deliver less, says Crow. A 2009 broadband study by Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society ranked Canada in the bottom third among 30 countries for speed and cost.

If these new communications devices are so critical and costs are high, who is being penalized? Those on lower incomes, including the elderly, suggest Crow and Sawchuk.

“With our research, we’ll be able to say to government, here’s a list of things you should think about when designing public services,” says Crow, who, believe it or not, doesn’t own a cellphone.

“This is about making a group who can provide us with wisdom and reflection a part of significant changes that are happening,” says Crow.

This research could lead to other projects. For Crow and Sawchuk, the growing popularity of cellphones raises questions around communications policy: What portion of the spectrum of airwaves used to transmit digital signals should be public and not commercial? How do we address privacy issues? Cellphones work best in urban areas, but should the government ensure rural and remote parts of Canada also have access?

Crow and Sawchuk are also co-directors of the Mobile Media Lab, which supports interdisciplinary research into wireless communications and mobile technology. They are co-editors, along with York Professor Michael Longford, of The Wireless Spectrum: The Politics, Practices, and Poetics of Mobile Media, to be published by  the University of Toronto Press this year.