Digital Connections will be Key to Staying in Touch Long After the Pandemic has Passed, say Western University Researchers
Sociology experts Anabel Quan-Haase, Molly-Gloria Harper and William Hollingshead among leading line-up of speakers at Congress 2022, Canada’s largest humanities and social sciences conference, taking place virtually May 12-20
London, ON, May 9, 2022 – After spending months connecting with family, friends and co-workers online, you’d think Canadians would be eager to return to in-person gatherings. On the contrary, we’ve become so comfortable getting together at a distance that digital communication has become normalized.
That’s the message of Western University sociology experts Anabel Quan-Haase, Molly-Gloria Harper and William Hollingshead, who have been analyzing qualitative data gathered in East York, Toronto, to better understand how people of all ages build and maintain social ties. Part of what they’re finding is that the rapid acceleration of communication technology brought on by the pandemic – whether texts, online chats or video calls – can be a meaningful substitute for meeting in person, and though it may feel unnatural at first, it’s actually a very natural progression of social interaction.
The researchers will be sharing their findings as featured speakers at the upcoming Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences (Congress 2022), Canada’s largest academic gathering and one of the most comprehensive in the world, taking place virtually this year from May 12-20.
Billed as a leading conference on the critical conversations of our time, Congress 2022 serves as a platform for the unveiling of thousands of research papers and presentations from social sciences and humanities experts worldwide. With more than 6,000 visitors expected to log in, the event focuses on reimagining the future following two years of the COVID-19 pandemic and other life-altering world events, with the goal of inspiring ideas, dialogue and action that create a more diverse, sustainable, democratic and just future.
“We’re all trying to get back to a new normal and part of that is figuring out the role of in-person gatherings,” said Quan-Haase, a professor in Western University’s Faculty of Information and Media Studies/Department of Sociology. “It’s a communication dilemma that’s not easy to resolve, because we all know there is risk to getting together in person, and yet people are different in terms of their willingness to engage with that risk,” she added.
At the start of the pandemic, Canadians experienced a massive activation of all kinds of social ties, as people jumped on social media platforms like TikTok, engaged in videoconferencing and relied on friend and family chat groups to stay connected during lockdowns, she explained. As time went on, however, activity waned and our social ties became more latent.
“We saw people less, we heard from them less, and now reactivating those face-to-face visits is not so easy,” explained Quan-Haase. “We’re all facing the same problem: How do we reimagine our social selves?”
Based on the researchers’ work — which includes qualitative analysis of data from in-depth interviews held with more than 100 residents in East York to understand the changing role of digital communication in maintaining community ties — technologies such as social media were already becoming normalized prior to the pandemic. What’s changed is that they went from being seen as something with potentially negative consequences for mental health, to being viewed as welcome tools for keeping in touch. East York was selected for the study group because its population and cultural diversity is representative of most large Canadian cities, Quan-Haase explained.
Their findings clearly show that, as might be expected, older adults get the most satisfaction from meeting with people in person. However, they’re also surprisingly content to use technology as a substitute when that’s not advisable – particularly to keep in touch with younger generations. Whereas they might pick up a phone to talk to someone their own age, they welcome video calls with grandchildren, for example.
“Contrary to the perception that a lot of older adults don’t use digital media, the people in our study are quite integrated with different types of digital technologies and talked about how it was the next best thing to not being able to see somebody in person,” said Harper, a PhD candidate in Sociology.
In fact, a large portion of older adults – the “go-getters” – are eager to learn new tools and quickly see the benefit of technology in helping them to organize their social networks and ask for assistance. Only a small subset of “reluctant older adults” don’t have access to technology or lack the skills to use it, and would therefore be prone to further isolation from their social networks during the pandemic, added Hollingshead, who is also pursuing his PhD in Sociology.
The researchers also found that most of us are starting to apply “media multiplexity” – using multiple channels to maintain contact with a single social tie, communicating with the same friend through a combination of Twitter, email, text and Zoom, for example. And we’re using different technologies where they fit best, such as texting for quick answers or using video when it’s important to see someone’s reaction.
“Technology is rapidly becoming a normal part of socialization,” said Quan-Haase. “People have found new ways of comfortably being together at a distance, but we’re still a lot more hesitant to have the whole family over.”
Organized by the Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences, Congress 2022 is sponsored by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, Mitacs, SAGE Publishing, Universities Canada, the Canada Foundation for Innovation, and University Affairs.
Registration – which includes 100+ keynote and open Congress 2022 sessions (with recordings available until June 3, 2022) – is $55. Visit www.congress2022.ca to register for a community pass and access the program of events open to the public. Use coupon code TRANSITIONS2022 for 10% off registration.
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