Social Relations and Technology: Continuity, Context, and Change

Social relations, although basic to human nature, health and well-being, have become increasingly complicated as a result of changing population demography and technology. In this essay, we provide a historical overview of social relations, especially as they affect older people. We briefly review the evolution of theory and measurement surrounding social relations as well as early empirical evidence. We consider how social relations have changed over time as well as continuity and change regarding basic characteristics of social relations. Of special interest is the emerging influence of technology on how people maintain contact, especially the changing ways people can use technology to increase, decrease, maintain, or avoid social relations. We consider both negative and positive aspects of these new technologies and their influence on health and well-being. Finally, we conclude that new and emerging technologies hold great promise for the future by overcoming traditional barriers to maintaining social contact, support exchange, and information acquisition. Nevertheless, we caution that these new technologies can have the dehumanizing effect of distance thus creating the potential for insensitivity and increased negativity. In sum, we are cautiously optimistic about the promise of technology to expand, but not replace, traditional forms of social contact.