By Tricia Toso and Galit Nimrod

We’ve all been there. You know that moment when anxiety floods your body and coils in the pit of your stomach as you realize that you don’t have access to wifi. You know it’s irrational, that emails or Facebook postings rarely represent life or death situations, but it’s still there, that sick feeling that accompanies being involuntarily offline, unreachable, unable to check in with friends and family or colleagues. This sensation of anxiety is one of the classic symptoms of what has been termed technostress, namely, stress caused by technology use.

Dr. Galit Nimrod, associate professor at the Department of Communication Studies, research fellow at the Center for Multidisciplinary Research in Aging at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Israel, and co-applicant in the ACT project, researches the psychological and sociological aspects of leisure and media use among older adults. I recently had an opportunity to speak with her via Skype about her three most recent publications on technostress, media traditionalism, and older adults’ use of humour in challenging ageist stereotypes. Nimrod explained that technostress is experienced by people differently, for some it might arise as one of the struggles to adapt to the continually shifting digital media landscape while readjusting to the various cognitive and social requirements. For others, technostress emerges with feelings of techno-overload or the sense that technology is invading their personal lives. Nimrod suggests that “there are many ways in which technostress manifests itself. One way is the feeling that we have to be online at all times, whether on a smartphone or a computer, to be checking messages, emails, texts constantly, and be available to answer them immediately, while for others it may be feelings of stress about privacy or a sense that others know too much about our personal lives”.

…Older adults, like younger users, experience stress in regard to issues such as privacy and the pressure to be constantly available, but unlike younger users they also feel a pressure to “keep up” with younger generations.

While the manifestation of technostress is common across age, gender and cultural contexts, older adults have very specific challenges. Nimrod notes that older adults, despite being the fastest growing segment of ICT users, are often ignored in technostress research, thus very little is known about how they experience and cope with it. One of her most recent studies looked at 537 Internet users over the age of 60 and how they experience technostress, as well as its relation to a sense of wellbeing. Her findings suggest a complexity of ICT use among older adults that both replicates and challenges research done on younger ICT users. For example, older adults, like younger users, experience stress in regard to issues such as privacy and the pressure to be constantly available, but unlike younger users they also feel a pressure to “keep up” with younger generations. They also have the additional anxieties around declining health and loss of loved ones that often pose more challenges and can work to erode available resources essential for the adaptation to new technologies and digital platforms. Nimrod found that older adults who were less technologically experienced and used the Internet less frequently reported higher levels of technostress, and significantly, higher levels of technostress were also associated with lower life satisfaction. As such, older adults who face a range of barriers in the adoption of new ICTs, whether due to a lack of instruction and support or poor health, experience more technostress that consequently diminishes their sense of well-being. Nimrod stresses that this problem of adaptation should be considered as a threat to the welfare of older adults.

As Nimrod suggests, there is extensive diversity in the ways older ICT users experience the digital technologies and the Internet, but the potential for technostress, in particular the sense of being left behind in a rapidly changing media landscape, has an important relationship to the digital divide among ICT users. She explains that as digital immigrants older adults face different challenges, but “there isn’t only one cause of the digital divide. Experience, knowledge, accessibility and not having a person to consult with are some of the many reasons older adults don’t use technology as well as younger people”. This, of course, is not inevitable and Nimrod calls for scholars and practitioners to give attention to interventions that will increase digital literacy and simultaneously ease technostress among older adults. She advocates for a learning component on technostress in computer and Internet training that would lessen the possibility of maladaptive use, as well as offering online surveys or quizzes where people could assess their level of technostress and then have access to practical steps to modify their behaviours and relationship to ICTs.

Nimrod suggests that older adults can also struggle with technophobia (fear of technology) that in turn both reinforces the digital divide and augments feelings of technostress. “Many older adults don’t know how to use new technologies; they were not born into an environment where everything is digital, and it take some time to get used to it. This can manifest as technophobia where they are scared to try something new” says Nimrod. She also suggests that media traditionalism plays a role in the digital divide, but this can be understood in different ways. “We can’t underestimate the power of habit” explains Nimrod: “For example, I love books, I love the paper, the smell, the touch, and I can’t imagine sliding across a screen instead of turning pages when I read. You can call me old and traditionalist, or you could acknowledge it as a habit. It is the same for older adults. Some people feel that there is no need for something else. Their needs for information, entertainment, and so forth are satisfied with familiar technologies, and they do not feel a need for new technology.”

Nimrod has also found, however, that some older adults really enjoy the process of adapting to new technologies and digital platforms. As part of the ACT-funded project Grannies on the Net, she heard women in a focus group say “I love it! I love learning something new, I love being part of this new world and I don’t want to be excluded, plus it is so convenient!” Some older adults find benefits in adopting new technologies, while others are content to stick with older and more familiar technologies. Nimrod’s research emphasizes the complexity of how people use and interact with media, as well as how we feel about it.

In a recent published article, Nimrod and her colleague Liza Berdychevsky researched sex-related humour in older adults’ online forums. Asked if she had witnessed humour as a way of dealing with technostress, Nimrod replied, that she had come across humour as a coping mechanism. “In the time Liza and I spent watching online conversations amongst seniors, there was a lot of humour about the use of technology. It is really great to see people making a laugh of their frustration with the webcam that doesn’t work. They had many conversations about technology online, and that consultation was often humorous as they would report what happened to them in an anecdotal way.” It is here that perhaps we can all learn from older adults’ use of ICTs, when your device inexplicably shuts down, doesn’t respond, or you can’t access the Internet: Keep Calm, Reboot, and Laugh it off.

Tricia Toso is a PhD student in Communications Studies at Concordia University and a research assistant with ACT. Galit Nimrod is associate professor at the Department of Communication Studies, research fellow at the Center for Multidisciplinary Research in Aging at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, and co-applicant in the ACT project.

ACT InFocus is a monthly feature that represents some of the people, research and events of the ACT Project. You can read past articles here, and if you have ideas or comments, you can share them with us here.