PhD position: Could Skype/FaceTime combat loneliness in the elderly?

Funded PhD with Tom Pollet at Northumbria University

Loneliness contributes to health problems in the elderly. Conversely, one’s social network buffers against health problems. However, research derived from the Social Brain Hypothesis shows that people’s social networks are not amorphous structures, but rather consist of a series of hierarchical layers varying in emotional closeness. The innermost layers have been labeled ‘support groups’ and ‘sympathy groups’. Support groups consist of individuals from whom one would seek support in times of severe emotional or financial distress: they have an average size of 5 members. Sympathy groups consist of individuals whose sudden death would be greatly upsetting: they have an average size of 12–15 members, including support group members. For elderly populations, it is currently unknown whether contact with individuals from certain social network layers matters more or whether any social contact matters. Moreover, it is currently unknown whether the medium of social contact matters: Is face-to-face contact more beneficial than contact via the phone? Is contact via a medium such as Skype or FaceTime similar to face-to-face contact or not? Previous research with a student population suggests that computer-mediated communication with a face-to-face component (e.g., Skype/FaceTime) is on a par with actual face-to-face contact in terms of positive affect. However, it is currently unknown whether similar effects exist for elderly populations. In this project, you will examine the composition of egocentric social networks of elderly people and its relation to loneliness and health.