The Elderly Digital Divide: Age Is Just a Number, and So Is Your Smartphone Password

Aging has its benefits: senior discounts, rambunctious grandchildren, peaceful retirement, and hopefully a heap of wisdom. But many who enter into their so-called golden years also face challenges when it comes to staying connected and socially engaged with friends, family, and the world around them. Making these challenges even harder is the existence of an elderly digital divide. As human interaction becomes increasingly reliant on digital technology, older adults are especially likely to encounter challenges that block them from the benefits of connection in the digital world.

To understand how seniors are impacted by the digital divide, it’s necessary to grasp the broader issues of loneliness for older adults and the effects of ageism. And while there are certainly barriers blocking greater digital engagement for seniors, there are also promising solutions. As the world grappled with the difficulties of the COVID-19 Pandemic, the importance of those solutions became apparent.

How the Digital Divide Is Isolating the Elderly

Older adults already experience isolation, but because so much social interaction now occurs online, overcoming that isolation has become even harder.

Loneliness As a Broader Issue

The consensus—which has drawn increased attention in recent years—is that many older adults are at risk of experiencing social isolation and loneliness. The CDC reports that a third of adults in the United States over age forty-five report loneliness, and one in four adults over sixty-five are socially isolated.

Americans over sixty, according to Pew Research Center, spend on average seven hours alone per day. In the United Kingdom, more than one million of those over seventy-five report not having spoken to a friend, neighbor, or family member for at least a month.

To be sure, social isolation and loneliness are distinct. Isolation describes the absence of social contact, while loneliness is a negative emotion caused by feelings of disconnection and aloneness. To be clear, you can be socially isolated and not feel alone, or you can feel lonely even when surrounded by many people. And of course, social isolation makes loneliness much more likely.

It’s also important to note that loneliness is more than just a negative emotion. Dr. Steve Cole, from the University of California, Los Angeles, calls loneliness a “fertilizer for other diseases” that can contribute to plaque buildup, cancer spread, and inflammation. The CDC notes that social isolation can increase the chance of premature death, dementia, stroke, and heart disease. Loneliness is serious, which makes its relationship with the elderly digital divide even more important.

Digital Exclusion Leads to Social Isolation

The digitally connected world spends a lot of time online. More than four in five Americans report going online every day, and 31 percent report going “almost constantly” online. Many of those who access the internet use social media to connect with friends and family and add new people to their universe. In the United States, 72 percent of adults regularly visit at least one social media site.

But the data show that older adults are less connected to the digital world. One in four adults over sixty-five doesn’t use the internet, and more than 35 percent lack a home broadband connection. According to Pew Research Center, about one-third of those over sixty-five years of age report using social networking.

As their friends and family communicate online, seniors without access—whether for lack of technology, digital literacy, desire, or broadband—are left out of the loop. They miss the laughter, the family updates, the shared empathy, the intellectual stimulation—all those intangibles that make human interaction so vital to the mind and soul. They also miss the greater independence that an internet connection can bring, and the sea of information online that can contribute to higher quality of life. While the data can be mixed, many studies point to mental, physical, and emotional benefits for older adults who use the internet.

Greater digital inclusion helps older Americans and older adults around the world fight back against isolation and loneliness.

COVID-19 Pandemic Emphasizes Digital Divide

The negative consequences of exclusion from technology and connection to the digital world were very evident during the pandemic, especially for older adults. As the world entered lockdown to combat the virus, real-life activities like grocery shopping and visiting the doctor transitioned to the digital world. Vaccine information and appointments often required internet access. The Stanford Center on Longevity points out that libraries and community centers, which once served as alternative ways to meet people and go online, were also shut down.

The pandemic tested the limits of social isolation for seniors, leading proponents of closing the elderly digital divide to double down on their drumbeat of advocacy. The president of the American Association of Retired Persons called for closing the digital divide as a matter of equity.

Impact of Ageism on the Digital Divide

While lack of access to technology may contribute to the digital exclusion of older adults, ageism also plays a role in elderly technology adoption.

Ageism Defined

The World Health Organization defines ageism as “stereotypes…prejudice…and discrimination toward others or oneself based on age.” Anyone at any age can experience ageism, but age discrimination becomes especially relevant for the older population. A large majority of older Americans report regularly encountering at least one “day-to-day” experience of ageism. Age discrimination is particularly relevant in employment decisions, where studies show that age matters to hiring managers.

How Ageism Holds Back Digital Engagement

Discriminatory policies and practices can certainly hinder digital inclusion for older adults. A lost job or a discriminatory experience in the healthcare industry may, for instance, affect income, well-being, and ultimately the capacity to use digital technology. Missing infrastructure, a lack of technology, or inadequate digital literacy training makes digital inclusion very difficult. But equally important to these external constraints is an internal one: the perceived ageism that leads many in the older population to opt out of crossing the digital divide.

Some older adults with the opportunity to use digital technology and access the internet may choose not to because they’ve internalized ageist rhetoric. Many seniors hear from younger adults or society that an older person lacks the digital skills and competence needed to use technology and navigate the internet.

A scholar at the University of Massachusetts Lowell suggests that lower self-efficacy and fear and anxiety created by this rhetoric can depress technology and internet adoption. Ageist messaging may also lead seniors to “underestimate the usefulness of the internet.” Another study showed that women with perceptions of aging that were more negative were less likely to use the internet. Men also saw lower levels of internet use in response to age discrimination.

Messaging during the COVID-19 pandemic brought age further into the spotlight. Because the virus posed a greater threat to older adults, many viewed COVID as “an older person problem.”

Barriers to Narrowing the Digital Divide for the Elderly

From ageism to technology to digital literacy, many barriers prevent bridging the digital divide for older adults.

Lack of Access

The growing pace of technological change enhances social inequality and societal challenges that already exist. That’s why for many seniors, digital engagement begins and ends with a lack of digital technology or broadband access. As mentioned above, Pew survey data indicate that older Americans lag younger Americans in smartphone ownership, home broadband, internet access, tablet ownership, and social media use.

The same lines of digital exclusion that broadly cut through society also map to the older adult population. One study of disabled and homebound older adults revealed startlingly low levels of internet use (17 percent for those above sixty). Black and Hispanic adults and those with lower incomes were most likely to be among those who never use the internet. In general, older adults face increasing economic and health inequalities, and lack of income or capacity can be key drivers in preventing digital engagement.

The Catch-up Curve

But even if seniors can access the digital world, they face a catch-up curve as they work toward equal digital footing. Because technology has developed so quickly, many older adults never had the opportunity to practice and gain basic digital literacy. In Europe, only 25 percent of older adults possess “basic or above basic digital skills,” according to the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe.

Feeling behind leads to apprehension about what it takes to catch up. One focus group of older tablet users expressed negative perceptions of digital technology like “lack of instructions,” “lack of…confidence,” “too complex technology,” and feelings of comparison and inadequacy. To catch up—which for some means gaining literacy in a few decades-worth of technological change—can seem daunting.

Additional Reasons for Digital Disengagement

The Centre for Ageing Better points out other perceptions that play a role in technological adoption among older populations. For some, cultural differences and preferences discourage use. The way people communicate, or sometimes fail to communicate, by way of Twitter or Facebook is quite different from the lunch counter conversations of the 1940s. And social capital matters, too, because going online, having people to talk to, and staying connected sometimes requires support from family and friends.

Even for an older person who wants to opt-in, physical barriers and accessibility can prevent digital inclusion. User experience, which includes the use of fonts and colors to the buttons and accessories that power the technology, can challenge adults with physical disabilities. Concerns about privacy or the complication of installation can also discourage adoption.

Strategies to Bridge the Digital Divide among the Elderly

Despite the barriers to helping older adults experience digital inclusion, several strategies and resources offer promise to overcome the digital divide for seniors.

Helping Seniors Go Online

The broader effort to help individuals join the digital world is particularly meaningful for older adults. In the United States, government-funded discounts can help older Americans afford broadband internet access. The European Union has a long-running focus on digital inclusion. Digital literacy training that is accessible to older adults also matters.

New technology, especially the Internet of Things (IoT), can also benefit seniors without requiring adoption. The integrated future of IoT innovations that will improve smart home capability, healthcare technology, and transportation will benefit older adults significantly.

Accessibility in Design Is Key

Building digital technology and experiences that are accessible to older adults, a population with a higher incidence of disabilities, is critical to bridging the divide.

Some researchers have advanced a concept known as “Universal Design,” which is a model that would account for the needs of all users in the design of products. This means thinking about flexibility of use, tolerance for error, physical effort required, size and space requirements for devices, and intuitiveness of use. The web development community is also increasingly focused on accessibility—say goodbye to tiny font size and poor color contrast that challenge even the sharpest of eyes.

Older Adults as Full Participants

But designing technology well requires input from those who will use it, which includes older adults. Scholars emphasize the importance of “co-design,” which means proactive and ethical inclusion of older users during research and development. Companies and brands also have an opportunity to adapt their digital offerings to include seniors and thereby expand their brand reach.

Closing the Elderly Digital Divide

Digital equity, which is when older adults have full access to the economic, personal, and civic benefits of digital access, is within reach. Even though the elderly digital divide looks wide, strategies and resources exist for seniors to make their golden years even brighter with help from the digital world.

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