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Could Skype/FaceTime combat loneliness in the elderly? (RDF17-R/PSY/POLLET)

  • Full or part time
    Dr Pollet
  • Application Deadline
    Monday, October 23, 2017
  • Competition Funded PhD Project (European/UK Students Only)
    Competition Funded PhD Project (European/UK Students Only)

Project Description

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.

Furthermore, you will examine whether the mode of contact matters and whether computer-mediated communication could alleviate loneliness to some degree. To this end you will conduct a series of longitudinal egocentric social network studies and experiments. This project will further our understanding of the interrelationship between social network structure and loneliness and help lay the foundations for future interventions to combat loneliness.

This project aligns with the goal of the integrated health & social care research theme to ‘develop and test interventions that are designed to optimize the health and wellbeing of individuals and groups throughout the life-course’ and with the goal of understanding how lives will ’be transformed in the next 20 years because of changes in digital technologies’.
The ideal candidate has multidisciplinary interests (psychology/sociology/technology/ageing) and has advanced data analytical skills, such as social network analysis and/or programming experiments.

Eligibility and How to Apply

Please note eligibility requirement:
• Academic excellence of the proposed student i.e. 2:1 (or equivalent GPA from non-UK universities [preference for 1st class honours]); or a Masters (preference for Merit or above); or APEL evidence of substantial practitioner achievement.

For further details of how to apply, entry requirements and the application form, see

Please ensure you quote the advert reference above on your application form.

Northumbria University is an equal opportunities provider and in welcoming applications for studentships from all sectors of the community we strongly encourage applications from women and under-represented groups.

Funding Notes

This project is being considered for funding in competition with other project. The funded studentship will include a full stipend, paid for three years at RCUK rates (for 2017/18 this is 14,553 pa) and fees (Home/EU £4,350).


Molho, C., Roberts, S.G.B., de Vries, R.E. & Pollet, T.V. (2016), The Six Dimensions of Personality (HEXACO) and their Association with Network Layer Size and Emotional Closeness to Network Members. Personality and Individual Differences, 99, 144-148.

Pollet, T.V., Roberts, S.G.B. & Dunbar, R.I.M. (2013), Going that extra mile: Individuals travel further to maintain face-to-face contact with highly related kin than with less related kin. PLoS ONE, 8, e53929.

Pollet, T.V., Roberts, S.G.B. & Dunbar, R.I.M. (2011), Extraverts have larger social network layers but do not feel emotionally closer to individuals at any layer. Journal of Individual Differences, 32, 161-169.

Pollet, T.V., Roberts, S.G.B. & Dunbar, R.I.M. (2011), Use of social network sites and instant messaging does not lead to increased offline social network size, or to emotionally closer relationships with offline network members. Cyberpsychology, Behavior and Social Networking, 14, 253-258.

Roberts, S.G.B., Dunbar, R.I.M., Pollet, T.V. & Kuppens, T. (2009), Exploring variation in active network size. Social Networks, 31, 138-146.

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