Older Adults, Social Capital, and the Internet: The Matthew Effect?

Monday, July 14, 2014: 5:30 PM
Room: 315
Oral Presentation
Barbara BARBOSA NEVES , Technical University of Lisbon, Portugal
Fausto AMARO , University of Lisbon, Portugal
Despite the so-called age-based digital divide, older adults are progressively using the Internet. But older adults are still less likely to use the Internet when compared to other age groups. So, how does this usage (or lack of) affect their social capital? Social capital is defined as the resources that are potentially available in one’s social ties. Social capital has been associated with a variety of positive outcomes from status attainment to well being.

To explore the relationship between Internet usage and social capital, we surveyed a stratified random sample of 417 individuals living in Lisbon, Portugal, of which 118 are older adults (over 64 years of age). Social capital was measured through three dimensions (bonding, bridging, and resources) and analyzed with Latent Class Modeling (LCM) and logistic regression analyses. We analyzed these dimensions separately and then combined them with LCM to create the variable social capital. Internet usage was measured through frequency of use; grouped into non-users, light users, moderate users, and heavy users. The quantitative data was complemented by 14 follow-up qualitative interviews. 

Our findings show that, on the one hand, the selected dimensions of social capital decrease with age but increase with Internet usage. On the other hand, social capital decreases with age but differently for each type of Internet user. The “Matthew effect” (Merton, 1968) is an adequate concept to describe social capital and its relationship with Internet usage: advantage begets further advantage, and disadvantage begets further disadvantage. Education predicts Internet usage by older adults; simultaneously the Internet seems to be compensating for the age effect related to social capital: those who are older and use the Internet are more likely to have a high level of social capital than those who are older but do not use it. The implications of these results are discussed herein.