New Open-Access Resources and a Free Course on Smartphones, Ageing and Health.

by Georgiana Murariu, Public Dissemination Officer at UCL Anthropology.

How have smartphones impacted on intergenerational relationships? What material issues affect smartphone use? How are smartphones being used in health and care settings around the world?

The Anthropology of Smartphones and Smart Ageing (ASSA) project answers these questions through a series of new, free teaching resources.

This innovative comparative project brought together 11 researchers, conducting 16 months of simultaneous fieldwork in 9 different countries, to explore the impact of the smartphone on the experience of mid-life and ageing. The project investigated the use and consequences of smartphones among older people in particular. These days, it is this demographic that is primarily driving smartphone adoption, meaning this ubiquitous device is no longer just associated with youth. However, here are many facets of smartphone use which are age-related, such as the potential inversion of traditional familial and social roles or the (sometimes) counterintuitive design of smartphones. The team explored the device as one that is embedded in cultural values and social relations.

ASSA also has a digital health element, focusing on the implications of smartphone use in the field of health, and the many creative and ingenious solutions research participants had found in order to deal with various issues – from intergenerational relations to setting up and maintaining care for a relative. Initially intending to use ethnographic information to assist in the development of mHealth initiatives, the team found that many participants did not use health apps in the traditional sense but rather adapted already ubiquitous apps like YouTube, WhatsApp and Google to their health and wellbeing needs. This led to a more informal approach to mHealth that the team calls ‘smart-from-below’.

When COVID-19 struck, the research team kept in touch virtually with research participants and each other – not surprisingly, a large part of this happened via their smartphones, the very devices they were investigating. Some of the early conclusions of the project, such as the smartphone being a site where the boundary between care and surveillance is frequently negotiated, were reinforced by uses of  smartphones during the pandemic. In Japan, Laura Haapio-Kirk  followed the government launch of a series of Coronavirus surveys via the messaging app LINE, which brought into focus the way care is reliant on forms of monitoring. Shireen Walton, who carried out research in Italy, one of the first European countries to be severely hit by the pandemic, observed how in her fieldsite of Milan, digital social participation felt vital in connecting to others and the world and noticed the emergence of a shared sense of social solidarity that was expressed in various ways, including popular hashtags such as #andràtuttobene (‘everything will be okay’).

Watch our short trailer to learn more about our project:

Our Free Resources

To help others explore and understand how smartphones are changing social relationships and being used in health initiatives, project findings have been distilled into a series of 4 free resources:

  1. ASSA Field site Films
  2. Open Access Books
  3. Free FutureLearn Course
  4. Comics

1. The ASSA field site films

During the first series of lockdowns in 2020, the team created 88 short, accessible films to summarise some of their findings and introduce the different participants and personalities across the field sites in Italy, Ireland, Uganda, Cameroon, Brazil, Japan, al-Quds (East Jerusalem), Chile, and China.

These are available on the ASSA Youtube channel, where they have been broken down into fieldsite-specific playlists:

2. Open Access Books

The results of the project are published in a series of open-access books called ‘Ageing with smartphones’.The first three volumes of the series, published by UCL Press, are available for free download here:

The first two monographs, ‘Ageing with Smartphones in Urban Italy’ (by Shireen Walton) and ‘Ageing with Smartphones in Ireland’ (by Pauline Garvey and Daniel Miller), are in-depth explorations of smartphone use in the fieldsites of NoLo (a neighbourhood in Milan, Italy) and two Irish fieldsites: Cuan, a town of about 10,000, and Thornhill, a coastal suburb on the northern side of Dublin city.

The third book, ‘The Global Smartphone: beyond a youth technology’, is a comparative volume demonstrates howhow the smartphone is more than an ‘app device’ and explores differences between what people say about smartphones and how they use them. The books are jargon-free and are suitable for sixth form pupils through to university students and those with little prior anthropological knowledge.

We are currently working on translating this comparative volume into 7 languages.

All three volumes have  short films embedded within the books – some from the playlists mentioned above – which allows readers to hear directly from some of ASSA’s research participants. One short film can be seen below – in the clip, researcher Xinyuan Wang, who did her fieldwork in Shanghai, takes us through her research participants’ use of the smartphone in their life and work.  

China – ‘How can I live my life without you?’

3. Free FutureLearn course

For those wishing to explore these themes in more depth we have created a short course on the FutureLearn platform, called ‘An anthropology of smartphones: communication, ageing and health’. This course can be taken for free and is broken down into three weeks:

  • Week 1: What are smartphones? How have they changed our lives?
  • Week 2: Ageing
  • Week 3: Health

The course requires about four hours of learning a week and the team aims to regularly interact with learners via the comment section.

In addition to introducing learners to some of the project’s key concepts, such as ‘the smartphone as a transportal home’, the course also encourages learners to do a practical exercise at the end of each week, asking them to interview participants about their use of various apps and discuss smartphone/device use with their older relatives. Learners then share their results and comment on each other’s experiences, thinking about themes such as care and surveillance, the smartphone as a material object and more.

It is not too late to enrol on to the course! It is free and can do so by going here.

4. Comics

We are also experimenting with creating comics based on the team’s findings. Collaborating with comics artist John Cei Douglas, and taking stories and findings directly from the research findings, Laura Haapio-Kirk (ASSA researcher working in Japan) and I have worked with the team to script a series of short comics. Working with the researchers to turn their experiences and insights into comics has been really thought-provoking, raising issues of anonymity, representation, and making us pay attention to the details needed to convey a sense of each fieldsite. Below is an example set in Santiago, Chile, where our researcher Alfonso Otaegui taught smartphone classes. Alfonso learned a lot about the difficulties first-time smartphone users have when it comes to mastering the device, but also the social and familial expectations around being able to learn quickly because smartphones are often viewed as ‘naturally intuitive’ devices by younger family members. We also have a second comic here, with 8 more to be released over the next couple of weeks!

We are excited by the new resources we have created and hope they will be useful to teachers and students, both in exploring global smartphone use, and illustrating the creative possibilities of disseminating anthropological findings to make research more accessible to the wider public.

If you’d like to give us feedback on how your students get on with the material, email me, Georgiana, at

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