Results follow the structure of the research questions. The first one (RQ1) focuses on the empirical evidence gathered during the initial research period, while the second (RQ2) looks at the initial and the follow-up qualitative research.
4.1. Older Individuals’ Risk Perceptions and Media Discourses
Between 2010 and 2012, concerns about different types of risks mostly arose spontaneously in conversations. About half of the Romanian participants brought up issues regarding health and mobile communication during the discussions. Some also discussed the risk of fraud or scams on mobile phones. Still, participants in Romania expressed low levels of concern. No one in Romania mentioned risks associated with antennas or the potential effects of electromagnetic fields. Conversely, in Catalonia, health risks, mostly connected to radiations, constituted the most significant concern, cited by almost four out of ten interviewed participants. Catalan participants expressed higher levels of concern than Romanian participants and focused their concerns more on health than on fraud and scams. This preliminary basic result suggested that an analysis of media content would be relevant, to search for differences in the prominent issues around mobile telephony.
The analysis focused on the total country corpus, not on specific media (see Figure 1
). We took a grounded, quantitative approach to classify articles’ dominant information. We identified five non-exclusive categories: (1) Daily life activities
, which gathered news about general mobile phone services, health care and prevention information, protection and risk management, and a set of other everyday life issues; (2) Privacy, surveillance, and neutrality
, which referred to news related either to legal or illegal activities in each of the three areas; (3) Health issues
, which included news—positive, negative or neutral—about the direct impacts of mobile communication and two kinds of indirect impact: addiction and dependencies, and the environment and ecology. (4) The Other risks
category included news on conflicts involving social norms—such as public exclusion and public blame; terrorist attacks; and road safety. Finally, (5) Scams and fraud
referred to the news on these problems favored by the pervasiveness of mobile telephony.
News item content analysis showed rather different interests in the Romanian and Catalan media (Figure 1
). We focused our interest on the three largest categories in each corpus and then on the largest subcategory of each one to identify the hot issues in each cultural context. In Romania, they are: first, Daily life activities
(103 hits, 46% of the corpus), with Protection and risk management
(69 hits, 31%) standing out as the most preeminent subcategory; second, Privacy, surveillance, and neutrality
(87 hits, 39%); third, Scams and fraud
(83 hits, 37%). In Catalonia, the first category is the same, Daily life activities
(70 hits, 49% of the corpus), while the largest sub-category is Healthcare and prevention information
(24 hits, 17%). The second category is Health impact
(59 hits, 41%), with Negative effects
(34 hits, 24%) as the outstanding sub-category. Finally, the third category is Other risks
(43 hits, 30%).
We were able to identify three main trends. Firstly, Romanian’s most prominent controversy in the media involved protection and risk management, whereas, in Catalonia, the media focused more on health issues and the direct negative impacts of mobile technology. Secondly, media discourse in Romania was rather nuanced regarding scams and fraud: from the use of mobile phones in academic dishonesty to commercial offers that had the specific purpose of scamming people. While this constituted the second most prominent category in the Romanian corpus, it was the least prominent in the Catalan corpus. Thirdly, illegal surveillance through mobile communication was a largely covered topic in the Romanian corpus, whereas in Catalonia this topic was rarely present.
Also, media discourse on the risks of mobile communication was different in the two countries in terms of source credibility and news category. In Catalonia, it mostly appeared in the Economics, International or Living in BCN sections. In Romania, however, more than half of the articles appeared under the label useful things, grouped together with news about housing, diets or healthy living. Some dealt with unusual things (labeled as cool stuff to know), with most of the information coming from sources of differing credibility—several of them tabloids—published on the news portal.
Seniors’ discourses were consistent with the media prominence of health and fraud risks in each country. In Romania, concern about health and mobile telephony expressed by older people was relatively low, although the topic appeared in over half of the interviews. Unlike older people from Catalonia, Romanian participants did not express concerns about electromagnetic radiations, and issues about them were hardly found in the Romanian media. Differences in seniors’ discourses on health risks related to the way the media discussed them. In the Catalan media, articles on technology risks, such as radiation, tended to focus on individuals’ responsibility. In the Romanian corpus, however, the focus was on everyday life and leisure activities. Few articles about mobile phone antennas and their potential risks appeared in the Romanian corpus, which is consistent with the fact that the topic never appeared in seniors’ discourse. A similar consistency appears in the case of fraud risks. This category was more pervasive in Romania’s media than Catalonia’s, with Romanian participants reporting being more worried than those from Catalonia about the possibility of being scammed while using mobile phones. In contrast, surveillance and privacy issues did not appear in the Romanian seniors’ discourse. A particular explanation for this discrepancy could be that, most of the time, media presented cases involving political or public figures in Romania; and participants—aware of this specific media content—might not have perceived themselves as vulnerable since they did not belong to the (political) elite of the country.
4.2. Me Versus the Others: Risk Perception Can Depend on Who Faces the Risk
Catalan participants had a more nuanced discourse on mobile communication-associated risks than their Romanian counterparts. We found three approaches in Catalonia during the whole period of observation: belief in adverse effects, skepticism, and belief in no “actual” negative consequences, all of which reflect “controversy”. Arguments and described behaviors mostly referred to the assumed personal risk. A participant in the initial research in Barcelona even had a “protector stick” on her mobile handset to reduce radiations. She explained she had kept the piece stuck on the three mobile handsets she had purchased since her first one 12 years before the interview (Woman, 63). Aside from this particular case, strategies more commonly mentioned were: not wearing the phone too close to the body and leaving it outside the bedroom at night. Second, skeptical seniors claimed “nothing has been proven” and described opposing attitudes towards mobile communication: either they felt that it was not worth worrying about risks, or they took precautionary measures just in case.
I don’t know if it’s true or false. Me, until they prove the opposite, I feel it has no health disadvantages.
(Woman, 96, Barcelona)
I never wear it on my body but always there, in the purse. Because (…) I don’t know to what extent radiations are good or bad, it hasn’t been proven.
(Woman, 66, Barcelona)
Finally, participants who considered adverse effects not to be “real” expressed their position. For instance, once asked, a participant stated that there were no disadvantages related to mobile telephony:
Not one. There’re people who say that antennas affect health. There’re people who oppose having an antenna on their roof. (…) It’s possible these antennas may have a [negative] influence, I don’t know, I don’t really believe it but it could be.
(Man, 88, Barcelona)
Conversely, nobody from Romania mentioned risks associated with antennas or potential effects of electromagnetic fields in the different projects we conducted. Instead, Romanian participants mostly expressed concerns about fraud and scams. Some did not answer unknown numbers to avoid unwanted commercial calls. Others even reported behaving aggressively to such calls. Several participants reported acting in a precautionary way when strangers called:
I usually don’t answer if I don’t recognize the number. They [people with commercial offers] always call me. I learned to recognize them in a second and then I just hang up. I don’t need them.
(Man, 76, Bucharest)
Still, Romanian participants were concerned with health risks for younger family members—(grand) children—or adolescents in general. They considered younger generations to be more exposed to radiation, permanently surrounded by electronic communication technologies they tended to overuse. Participants were not concerned with personal risks, as they believed they would appear after years of overuse. Yet they expressed concerns about the future of their children’s health. In Catalonia, however, the discourse about health risks mainly focused on the risks for the self. A general idea, “this is not a problem for me,” arose in both social contexts:
Well, I don’t know to what extent this kind of radiation can harm me for [being exposed] minutes. Also, as I don’t usually wear [the mobile], I put it in my purse (…) I don’t think there is any effect. Maybe for those who spend twenty-four hours a day attached to the mobile phone, maybe there’s [a negative effect].
(Woman, 60, Barcelona)
There’re questions about the influence on our health. Specialists are going to research to see if there’s any effect. I don’t talk so much, but my daughter, she talks for hours [on the mobile] plus she uses a computer at work. I believe in time a person could be negatively influenced by this.
(Woman, 63, Bucharest)
To sum up, participants perceived the risk associated with mobile communication as either a personal problem, as in Catalonia, or as an issue for others, as in Romania. In the former case, these others tended to be important, as they were close relatives. Still, some older participants did not show a high degree of concern and risks were attributed to others, namely younger generations, in the case of Romania.
4.3. Perceived Risk and Uncertainty of Mobile Communication
Both in the initial study
and in the follow-up research
, older people expressed concerns regarding risk and uncertainty around mobile communication. When talking about health issues, their perceptions mainly appeared to be shaped in terms of uncertainty, arguing that “nothing had yet been proven” and “more studies need to be done.” As they did not necessarily detect a likelihood of damages to personal health in the foreseeable future—even less so regarding a technology for which there is no conclusive evidence—mobile communication and health risks referred to others in general and to younger generations in particular.
Who knows what will happen in the future? I will probably not live to tell, but I’m worried about all children, who spend hours on computers and telephones; and in which way this will affect their health. New types of diseases will come from the use of all these [technologies].
(Woman, 65, Bucharest)
Also, concerns regarding the negative influence of mobile communication on health were described as “uncontrollable” and not related to personal decisions. This idea particularly arose among Romanian participants, linked to lower trust in authorities and State institutions. In this sense, participants expressed concerns about the credibility of information received from the authorities regarding communication technologies and health risks.
I have read something in a newspaper about radiations caused by the mobile phone. It was not clear to me and I am wondering if they are telling the truth. I mean, they are interested in selling the products, right? Then, you see […] in Romania, they [authorities] never do the right thing when people’s lives are in danger.
(Man, 67, Bucharest)
Other concerns about the use of mobile telephony, such as scams and fraud, were described by participants more as risks than uncertainty. The knowledge about the likelihood of scam situations came directly from the media and matched their direct or indirect experiences.
I took the [prepaid] card; I put it in the telephone on Friday and Monday I had nothing. They’d stolen my money. When I called them [the company], they said I had used it [my airtime], but it wasn’t true. Dominica [a friend] called them and made a scandal because this had also happened to her twice. But I think it was Adela [the post office attendant who actually inserted the card in the phone] who took them.
(Woman, 70, rural Romania)
I have seen on TV that they would call you and ask for information about your bank account or they would say that your son had an accident and then by the time you came to your senses, the money was gone. I know they target old people; I mean nobody tried this with me, but I know somebody who was left without savings.
(Man, 63, Bucharest)
The more technologically skilled participants expressed concerns about the use of different communication technologies regarding predictability. They were aware that digital communication is changing fast and they have limited capabilities to predict the number of risks technology will bring in the future. As a result, sometimes they were more reluctant in adopting new communication technology and skeptical about using them. In Romania, such participants were mostly men with a technical background, coming from urban areas. They were struggling between their skepticism and the social pressure to use the latest technologies.
I would like to learn more about the use of Facebook. I have an account, but I don’t use it. I’ve been an engineer for 30 years, and I know how easily somebody can access your account when you use certain applications. So, I am more interested in finding out more about security issues when using Facebook. Well, I have to admit that my wife convinced me to come to this workshop.
(Man, 65, Bucharest)
In Barcelona, at the end of the period, some participants expressed having to cope with the risks new digital features bring with them, such as permanent surveillance from digital companies or public administration. For instance, a participant agreed with the idea that “Google knows everything” about us but “if you want to be in [this is the price]” (Woman, 65, Barcelona). Another participant justified her lack of concern by stating that she is “an average person […] not interesting at all” (Woman, 71, Barcelona). In this case, risk perception is minimized, as the person does not stand out and would not draw specific interest from those who might be gathering her digital data.
It is worth mentioning that, both in Romania and Catalonia, the negative aspects of using mobile communication tended to diminish, while a generally optimistic view of the role of technologies in people’s lives tended to increase. Particularly in Romania, focus group participants who expressed negative views about mobile communication were inhibited by the majority—who had a techno-optimistic view. During personal interviews, people were less susceptible to social pressure and expressed more concerns, all the while maintaining a generally positive view towards the use of mobile technology. Participants’ associations between communication technology and general development/progress are salient in Romanian participants’ discourse. People not only reported social pressure to adopt different devices or applications, but they also described technological skills as a type of progressive behavior.
We have to learn if we don’t want to be left behind… I have three tablets, and in the beginning, I thought I would never learn to use a tablet. I thought I was not capable enough. People like me think like this, and I would like to tell them that nothing is that difficult and they have to try because this is the direction in which society is moving.
(Woman, 63, Bucharest)
Association of digital skills with (personal) progress appeared both in Romania and in Catalonia. However, some of the Romanian participants felt hopeless. Not having enough skills, they struggled not to be excluded. Although we did not find risk of social exclusion in the media content analysis or explicitly in people’s discourse, participants implicitly referred to a feeling of “being left behind.” In fact, the tendency of Romanian participants to talk merely about the positive outcomes of mobile communication, giving less importance to negative concerns compared to those from Catalonia, could also be interpreted by their view of technology in relation to progress.