Digital Literacy for Senior Citizens: Building ICT Competencies

Internet communications technology (ICT) has become integral to daily life. However, millions of senior citizens struggle to navigate the internet. As technology advances, older people are falling further and further behind when it comes to ICT competencies.

Accessibility barriers, harmful misinformation, and increasingly sophisticated scams are only some of the issues that the elderly face online. In these situations, it is critical to build digital literacy for senior citizens and work toward a more equitable digital world.

Why Senior Citizens Need Digital Literacy

Although more people are using the internet every year, elderly people often face significant challenges when adopting new technology. According to a report from Age UK, a United Kingdom–based charity for senior citizens, approximately 3.4 million people aged 65 and older have never used the internet.

At the same time, the world is becoming increasingly dependent on internet-enabled technologies. It is critical for senior citizens to build digital literacy skills to navigate the online world.

Why Elderly People May Struggle with Technology

There are several reasons why elderly citizens struggle with technology. Advancing technologies can be confusing and difficult to adopt. Accessibility issues can make it difficult for seniors to view, comprehend, or interact with content online.

Socioeconomic barriers such as high broadband costs and lack of infrastructure prevent billions of people from accessing the internet each year. Many elders do not use the internet simply because they elect not to do so.

Age UK surveyed senior citizens about why they choose not to engage with digital technologies, uncovering the following data from respondents.

  • 54 percent of participants do not have a computer or ICT-enabled device
  • 46 percent of participants were simply not interested in or did not have a reason to use the internet
  • 41 percent of participants stated that they were not sure how to use the internet
  • 34 percent of participants have concerns about scams
  • 31 percent of participants found it too difficult to keep up with technology

The Benefits of Digital Literacy for Senior Citizens

Senior citizens are making up an increasingly larger proportion of the world’s population. According to the United Nations, in 2018, elderly people aged 65 and older outnumbered children under five for the first time in history.

Simultaneously, digital skills are becoming more and more important for daily life. Over 80 percent of middle-skill jobs require digital proficiency. In 2021, there were an estimated 4.66 billion active internet users globally, making up 59.5 percent of the world’s population.

By building digital literacy, senior citizens can participate fully in this digital world and gain access to valuable opportunities available through the internet. The benefits of digital literacy for senior citizens are plentiful.

  • Social Connection: One of the major benefits of digital literacy for seniors is social connectivity. Many elderly people experience isolation, which was especially true during the COVID-19 pandemic. These seniors can leverage social media, video calling, and other technologies to connect with loved ones and reduce these feelings of loneliness, which could be detrimental to their health.
  • Continued Independence: Digital technologies can enable senior citizens to continue their independence. These solutions make it easier for seniors to safely live on their own for longer. For example, elders can use personal monitoring devices to call for medical attention and alert their families if they need help.
  • Participation in Key Activities: Many daily activities are taking place online. By developing digital literacy skills, seniors can take advantage of tools to manage their finances, shop online, and communicate with people around the world via email and social media.
  • Access to Benefits and Services: Like commercial businesses, many government agencies and public service providers offer benefits and services online. By building digital skills, elderly people can apply for compensation, schedule repairs and appointments, and access the services they qualify for.
  • Leisure and Entertainment Options: The digital world is full of exciting and often free entertainment options that seniors can use. By developing digital skills, elderly people can access streaming services, play online games, and engage in other leisure activities online.

Consequences of Digital Exclusion on Senior Citizens

While digital inclusion can significantly benefit seniors, digital exclusion can have the opposite effect. Seniors who do not have digital literacy skills can miss out on valuable opportunities. When they do use the internet, they can encounter significant difficulties and unique dangers.

Online Scams

Elderly people often fall victim to online scams, resulting in significant financial losses and hardship. According to the 2020 IC3 Elder Fraud Report from the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), American senior citizens lost almost $1 billion in scams in 2020. These scams affected 105,301 people over the age of 65.

Online scams are becoming increasingly difficult to spot as thieves adopt more sophisticated methods. Without digital literacy skills and education about these schemes, an elderly person could lose significant amounts of money. According to the FBI, each victim lost an average of $9,175.


Digital literacy teaches people how to find reputable content on the internet and identify whether a source contains false information. Unfortunately, it can be difficult for senior citizens to know whether a piece of content is misleading or outright false.

Elderly people seem to be more susceptible to false information on the internet in comparison to other populations. Researchers from Harvard University reviewed several studies that examined the prevalence of online misinformation among older American adults.

Many of these studies cited digital illiteracy as a major contributor to this phenomenon. According to the researchers, older adults who have not used the internet in the past have less experience with content such as clickbait, chain letters, and hoaxes. This can make it more difficult to identify false content, especially if the design is similar to reputable sources.

Difficulties in the Workplace

Not all senior citizens retire when they reach a certain age. Many people continue working well into their later years. However, many employers require their employees to use digital tools and hold some level of digital proficiency. If an elderly person lacks these digital skills, they could fall further behind at work and struggle to complete their tasks. This can lead to significant frustration for both the individual and their co-workers, and stratification in the workplace.

Loneliness and Isolation

Modern technologies enable people to communicate with nearly any person, at any time. Without access to social media, video calling software, or devices like smartphones or tablets, seniors can feel extremely lonely. They may also experience isolation as friends and family cannot communicate with them as conveniently.

This loneliness can have a severe impact on elder health. Studies have linked social isolation to poorer cognitive function as well as an increased risk of health conditions like cardiovascular disease, dementia, and depression.

Additionally, isolation is a major contributing factor to elder abuse. According to a 2017 study from the World Health Organization (WHO), approximately one in six seniors around the world experienced mistreatment. Without digital access, it can be difficult for seniors to communicate with loved ones or seek help for mistreatment.

How to Promote Digital Literacy among Senior Citizens

Elderly people face unique challenges when it comes to the digital world. To promote digital literacy among senior citizens, it is critical to identify these barriers and implement inclusive solutions to remedy them.

Use Inclusive Design Best Practices

Inaccessible design prevents senior citizens from accessing, interpreting, and comprehending information from the internet. Implementing inclusive best practices for web, mobile, and ICT device design can make it easier for seniors to navigate the web.

However, many technology companies fail to adequately address these accessibility issues. It is necessary for designers, developers, manufacturers, and other engineers to expand their awareness of elderly users and design products with their perspective.

Stakeholders can take the following steps to make technology more accessible to elderly users.

  • Keep the design as intuitive and clear as possible.
  • Introduce new features gradually over time, rather than all at once.
  • Ensure that all text is clear and easy to read by using large, simple fonts.
  • Avoid using text over images or text that blends into the background, such as dark gray text on a lighter gray background.
  • Offer alternative access methods for touchscreen devices, which can be painful to use for people with arthritis.

Simplify, Strengthen, and Normalize the Internet

Researchers from Lancaster University found that elders experience many other barriers to technology that extend far beyond accessibility issues. In a 2018 study, researchers found that many personally held values impact an elderly person’s desire to learn new technologies.

Elderly people may fear making mistakes while using technology or see technology as arduous or time consuming. Security concerns also make it difficult for seniors to navigate the internet, as they are unsure whether they are safe.

A focus group of eighteen seniors uncovered similar findings. In this study, the seniors interacted with tablets and spoke to researchers about their advantages and disadvantages. While the group expressed strong interest in learning new technologies, they also voiced similar concerns and expressed skepticism about using technology at all.

These studies came to several conclusions on how to remedy the digital divide between elders and the younger population. In the Lancaster University paper, researchers argue that designers should implement stronger safety nets for online services to provide elderly people with peace of mind and reassurance.

In the focus group study, researchers recommended implementing initiatives to normalize technology in seniors’ lives. They noted that understanding elderly people’s perceptions of technology is critical to building digital literacy.

Digital Literacy Workshops for Senior Citizens

The internet is a vastly complex world that continues to change and evolve rapidly year after year. The digital landscape in 2022 is much different than it was in 2012, 2002, 1992, and so on. Internet-enabled technologies are advancing at an exponential rate, which makes it difficult to keep up.

The world’s population is getting older as this technology advances, which poses barriers to adoption. In 2020, approximately 727 million people around the world were sixty-five years or older. Experts expect this number to double to over 1.5 billion by the year 2050.

Although younger people may believe that they have a stronger handle on the internet than their elders do now, it is difficult to predict new advancements that may occur in future. Implementing digital literacy workshops can help ensure that the aging population continues to keep pace with modern technologies as they continue to advance.

Developing Inclusive Digital Literacy Workshops

If a senior citizen feels like they are falling behind on digital technology, they should be able to easily access these workshops. Exorbitant participation fees, technological barriers, and poor awareness campaigns could make it even more difficult for an elderly person to gain the skills they need.

For these reasons, it is important for these events to be as accessible as possible. Educators should design curricula and classroom activities with elderly students in mind. As many elders face financial barriers to digital literacy, workshops should be free or as low cost as possible.

Hosting workshops at senior-frequented locations can increase awareness and make it simpler for these students to participate. For example, libraries, senior community centers, and residential communities would be optimal locations for these workshops.

Building Digital Competencies for the Future

Without relevant digital skills, elderly people can face significant risks online. It is important to support digital literacy for senior citizens and promote accessible initiatives like workshops to build ICT competencies.

If you want to learn more about the digital divide and how to design digital literacy activities, check out this article from the 2020 IEEE Frontiers in Education Conference (FIE).

Interested in becoming an IEEE member? Joining this community of over 420,000 technology and engineering professionals will give you access to the resources and opportunities you need to keep on top of changes in technology, as well as help you get involved in standards development, network with other professionals in your local area or within a specific technical interest, mentor the next generation of engineers and technologists, and so much more.