As many of us have noted over the past year, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought about an unexpected shift in the way we rely on virtual communication technologies. Work, school, shopping, and socialization have been redefined as online activities for may people. The potential consequences of this shift could have enormous impacts on people’s ability to equitably participate in the workforce, achieve an education, or fulfill their social needs. While working from home has brought benefits such as better air quality from the lack of commuting and greater productivity, it risks leaving behind those who do not have good internet access at their homes and rely on greater connectivity at the workplace. Similar concerns exist for students, whose education quality can be seriously impaired by having to attend school via a shaky internet connection. Socialization is also a concern. Young internet natives have found ways to connect and create virtual communities during the pandemic, but loneliness is a major concern for older generations that do not adapt so easily to using virtual socialization spaces. Here, we consider equity issues raised by pandemic-induced reliance on virtual communication technology and how we can better meet the needs of underserved groups in an increasingly internet-reliant world
Our COVID Future survey provides us with insights into how people have been managing the increased reliance on technology during the pandemic. We categorized respondents in three different ways to analyze their experiences with technology. The first was age, which we separated into younger (under 35 years old), mid-age (between 35 and 65), and older (over 65) categories. The second was whether or not our respondents had access to high-speed internet. Finally, we looked at how frequently six different technologies – social media, texting, video calling technology, email, multiplayer video games, and business-oriented chat software – were used before the pandemic.
One question we examined regarding changes brought about by the pandemic was whether respondents’ productivity was impacted positively or negatively. What we found was that our younger respondents and mid-age respondents were more likely than older respondents to say that they had been more productive since the pandemic hit. We also noted that those that did not have high-speed internet were 2 times as likely to say that their productivity decreased significantly. On the flipside, those that did have high speed internet reported a significant increase in productivity 1.5 times more often than those who did not. Finally, we saw that text messaging, video calling, and chat software were not an indicator of changing productivity. However, frequent usage of social media and video games was associated with a decrease in productivity. This result shows that heavy usage with some of these technologies does not necessarily mean that respondents were more familiar, and thus more productive. It is possible that social media and video games simply distracted people from work. Email was the only technology for which more frequent users showed an increase in productivity.
Another important series of questions that we looked at had to do with our respondent’s attitudes towards various technologies and services. We asked if they found learning about new technology to be frustrating. Looking at age, we saw that mid-age respondents were slightly more inclined to report frustration with new technologies than younger respondents. However, older respondents were 2 times more likely than either younger or mid-age respondents to strongly agree that new tech was a source of frustration. Those with high-speed internet were almost 1.5 times as likely as those without to say that technology did not cause much frustration. Lastly, with technology usage, we found with four of our technologies (texting, email, video games, and chat software), more frequent usage was associated with less frustration. For social media and video calling technology, there was no discernable connection between frequent use and frustration. This indicates that prior familiarity with these technologies often reduced frustration with new online options during the pandemic.
Next, we asked respondents if they felt video calling was a good alternative to A) in-person business meetings and B) in-person social interaction. Younger and mid-age groups were similar in their belief that video calling is a good alternative for business meetings, with older respondents being more hesitant to agree. All three groups were slightly less inclined to believe that video calling was a suitable substitute for in-person interaction, but the oldest group was most opposed to this. Looking at internet access, those with high-speed internet were nearly 1.5 times as likely as those without to say that video calling is a good alternative for business meetings. Interestingly, both groups were approximately equally likely to say that they did or did not find it to be a good alternative to social interaction, tending to be more negative than when asked about business meetings. One potential explanation for this is that business meetings have more attendees and likely require more bandwidth than social or personal video calls. Then, we only looked at how responses compared based only on video calling usage instead of other technologies. What we found was that whether respondents utilized video calling software frequently or infrequently was not an important factor in determining if they found it to be a good alternative to business or social interaction. Similar to other groups, though, they all were less likely to say that social interaction could be replaced than business meetings.
Another question about online alternatives had to do with online schooling. Despite the fact that all age groups had a relatively positive perception of online school as an alternative for high school or college, the older demographic was 1.5 times less likely to strongly agree that it was. Notably, for internet access, those with and without access to high-speed internet felt similarly about online school, more likely to think that it is a good alternative than not. This finding contradicts the idea that high-bandwidth calls, like school and work meetings, are less feasible for those without high-speed internet access. A future research question of interest might explore why internet access has such an effect of people’s perception of online business meetings, but not online school.
The final question had to do with whether respondents enjoyed online shopping. For the more neutral responses (somewhat disagree, neutral, and somewhat agree with the statement ‘I enjoy online shopping’), the results across age categories were similar. For those that felt strongly though (either strongly agree or strongly disagree), there was a correlation between how young someone was and how much they liked online shopping, with 43% of the younger respondents saying they strongly agreed, compared to 37% of mid-age, and only 27% of the older ones. When examining internet access, we found that those with high-speed internet were 1.5 times as likely as those without to agree that online shopping was enjoyable.
Ultimately, there were important differences in attitudes towards technology amongst respondents. Older respondents typically were slightly less productive, less likely to think that online alternatives were superior to in-person activities (be it work, school, socializing, or shopping), and understandably more frustrated by new technology than their young or mid-age counterparts. Those without access to high-speed internet were less likely to be productive, enjoy online shopping, or avoid frustration with new tech. On the topic of frequency of technology usage, it became clear that some technologies like social media and video games resulted in much less productivity when used more frequently, and usage of email had the opposite effect. Finally, greater familiarity with the majority of virtual technologies was associated with less frustration overall.
While some may view the pandemic as an opportunity to usher in more widespread usage of new technologies it is important to keep in mind that not everyone is as familiar with, or even able to access, such technologies to begin with. The inequality in responses in our survey show that older people, those without high-speed internet, and those who simply don’t use technology as much as the rest are going to be less inclined to hop on the bandwagon of online alternatives, despite trends showing that it may be their only option for certain activities in the future. As video software for business and school, online shopping, and virtual options for human connection become more popular it will be vital not to forget about these crucial differences.