XXVIII.4 July - August 2021
Page: 36
Digital Citation

The collateral damage of digitalization during Covid

Linnea Öhlund

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The intention of digitalizing in a society may be to contribute to the greater good; collateral damage, however, is bound to occur as integration proceeds without fully considering those negatively affected. The Covid-19 pandemic has accelerated the adaptation and digitalization of technologies in society. In Sweden, many people turned to online versions of their pre-pandemic lives to stay connected. But this change from physical to digital interaction has been challenging for many, especially seniors, who are already more vulnerable due to the increased risk of negative health consequences from Covid-19. The quickly changing Swedish society is also part of a growing problem: the collateral damage of digitalization. In this article, I discuss a study conducted with 15 seniors living in Sweden. The study highlights the complexity of living in a constantly changing digital world that does not fully consider those who are negatively affected.

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In Sweden, as in many other parts of the world, digitalization and digitization are occurring rapidly. In fact, Sweden is on several lists of the world's top digital countries [1]. This constant change is positive for many individuals, providing newer, cheaper, more accessible, and smoother ways of managing their everyday lives. But for those who cannot adapt, challenges arise. To clarify how this collateral damage can occur and how it affects seniors specifically, I draw from an empirical study conducted in 2020 on 15 seniors ages 69 to 80.


Many seniors in Sweden own digital technology and use it on a daily basis: to socialize, to obtain information, and to manage chores and their finances. During the pandemic, technology platforms such as Facebook, Zoom, and WhatsApp have provided ways for seniors to stay connected with friends and family. The ease with which some seniors adapted to these technologies probably stems from the fact that many have already been using technology for a long time. Others, however, have been put in an extra-vulnerable position by the pandemic. The study I conducted points toward the pandemic as a catalyst for an already existing problem: the collateral damage of digitalization. In Sweden today, there is a lot of pressure on individuals to adjust to and use digital technologies. Those who do not use them will most likely find their lives negatively affected.

Seniors also often experience a general sense of stigmatization linked to our fast-changing digital society, which has been amplified by the pandemic. This change makes it harder for those who do not use technology to get help because many services exist only online. Those who cannot or are unwilling, for various reasons, to adapt are left with little help and few resources to catch up. The problem is not that individuals who choose not to use technology require more and better technologies. Instead, the core issue is that the society in which these non-technology-using seniors live fails to see the collateral damage caused by a rapidly changing digital world.

Seniors are often seen as vulnerable by the public. This view is frequently linked to aspects of aging, such as physical and/or cognitive decline or involuntary isolation due to the loss of friends and family. We can also see this in HCI research [2,3]. But this one-sided view of aging as entailing a constant decline in quality of life—along with the belief that technology can help slow this decline—is seen in HCI as damaging for the older population [4]. Looking at previous HCI literature, we see that studies on seniors' technology use are often conducted with the belief that if we could only design better systems, better user experiences, and better, more accessible, and cheaper artifacts, individuals would be able to learn technology and thrive. But these assumptions provide a limited and inaccurate picture of seniors' technology use. By not addressing the particular society an individual lives in and how major advancements can affect them, research contributions will fail to address the real reasons why some groups and individuals choose not to use technology. The core of the problem is not that seniors should have to use technology to improve their lives. Instead, other solutions should be made available for seniors who do not use technology. The vulnerability that seniors feel due to the Covid-19 pandemic may therefore not be solved entirely by vaccination.

From the study, it became evident that most participants had conflicting feelings toward digital technology. First, many could not imagine living without digital technology and how it helped them pay bills, go shopping, stay in touch, play games, read newspapers, and manage their lives. Despite the participants' use and general appreciation of technologies, many expressed feeling being forced to use them. They feared being left behind and negatively affected, which they had seen happen to non-technology-using friends. These adverse effects occur as Swedish society continues to adapt and integrate digital solutions to replace analog ones. Not adapting to these changes means negative consequences in the participants' lives. Many participants expressed feeling neglected and marginalized in relation to digital technology and development in Sweden. Six participants mentioned family members or friends who felt disconnected from society due to not using digital technologies. One participant described friends who did not use technology because they felt too old to learn as being "in a nightmare," their quality of life significantly lowered. Another participant's mother could not place herself in any queues for eldercare since they were exclusively online. Nor could she obtain information on products or services advertised on TV, since all the information was online. These obstacles resulted in feelings of immense frustration. One participant said he had attempted to install Swish, a mobile payment app, and when he asked his bank for help, they could not assist him because he had lost the code they had sent him. He was frustrated that his bank was unable to help and expressed irritation that no one helped with such situations today.

The core issue is that the society in which these non-technology-using seniors live fails to see the collateral damage caused by a rapidly changing digital world.

The study reveals a catch-22 for seniors in Sweden: Digital change is happening at the cost of individuals, and there is little help available for those who want to adopt it. These negative effects are most likely unintentional, but are best described as collateral damage caused by society's digitization and digitalization. The Covid-19 pandemic has further amplified this situation for seniors, since the digital world is more important now than ever. In digitally advancing the Swedish society, it is easy to point the finger at seniors and accuse them of not wanting to adopt technology, despite the benefits. But this would be to blame seniors for their situation. It is important to look into structures of society that enable the stigmatization and marginalization of seniors, possibly building on the notion of collateral damage. The findings could make valuable contributions not only to the HCI field but also to seniors themselves. The vaccine may protect seniors from health-related problems, but the issues of stigma and neglect existed prior to the pandemic and it will continue to exist after the pandemic has ended. For future research, it is essential to remember that the pressure seniors in Sweden feel to use technology, and the stigma felt by those who do not use it, can be linked to the collateral damage of the digital society.

back to top  References

1. Top countries moving towards a cashless society by 2022. GlobalData. Jan. 13, 2020; https://www.globaldata.com/top-countries-moving-towards-a-cashless-society-by-2022

2. Khosravi, P., Rezvani, A., and Wiewiora, A. The impact of technology on older adults' social isolation. Comput. Hum. Behav. 63, (Oct. 2016), 594–603. DOI: 10.1016/j.chb.2016.05.092

3. Dogruel, L., Joeckel, S., and Bowman, N.D. The use and acceptance of new media entertainment technology by elderly users: Development of an expanded technology acceptance model. Behav. Inf. Technol. 34, 11 (Nov. 2015), 1052–1063. DOI: 10.1080/0144929X.2015.1077890

4. Estes, C.L. and Binney, E.A. The biomedicalization of aging: Dangers and dilemmas. The Gerontologist 29, 5 (Oct. 1989), 587–596. DOI: 10.1093/geront/29.5.587

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Linnea Öhlund is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Informatics at Umeå University, with a focus on interaction design, vulnerable groups, and social justice. [email protected]

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