Coronavirus: Senior citizens are even more digitally excluded than ever

Lockdown, social isolation and social distancing has underlined the need for all New Zealanders to be able to make use of digital devices and the internet, yet research has confirmed that some groups are more likely to be digitally excluded than others, writes Professor Miriam Lips and Dr Elizabeth Eppel.

One of these more digitally excluded groups is people over 65. In a recent study involving 158 people aged 65 and older, we tried to get a better understanding of their digital inclusion and exclusion. It would be a mistake to see this group as uniform; we found a large variety of internet users and non-users. This has implications for how we tackle this problem.

Investment in rural broadband, and the Government providing digital devices to students who don’t have  internet at home,  may not be enough for digital inclusion for all. Our research makes it clear that having access to a laptop, iPad or a mobile phone and internet in the home doesn’t automatically guarantee that these devices are effectively used in ways that support quality of everyday life through communication and access to online services.

Research participants often had a device, but they were not using it, or using it only for a minor function such as playing games. In general, seniors who were not using the internet didn’t think they needed it, and preferred alternatives such as face-to-face communication or having somebody else doing things digitally on their behalf. Many confessed that they lacked the skills or  confidence to use the internet. For many, having an internet connection was too expensive for their limited budget.

For those who rejected internet devices, their preference was time for other things, such as gardening or reading a book. Also, they valued traditional methods of interaction, such as in-person and cash transactions, or using a landline.

Many seniors over  85 had never used the internet while in the workforce, and declared themselves too old to learn new things. Others had undertaken a course, but often found group courses unsatisfactory: tailored, one-on-one teaching would have worked better for them.

Those who lacked confidence commonly had privacy and security concerns, but also were  scared of making mistakes, while doing internet banking for instance. Some devices they declared as just too hard to use for older eyes and arthritic fingers.

Or participants commented that they had difficulty getting the information they wanted from internet service providers about suitable service plans and devices. They felt these were often tailored to younger users’ needs.

Living in a retirement home is not a guarantee for internet availability, as some retirement villages don’t provide a connection to the village for residents, or a public device as part of their service. So each resident must fund their own connection at considerable cost.

Many non-users told us how they asked somebody else, often a partner, child or a grandchild, to use the internet on their behalf, for instance to pay bills, make purchases or set up direct debits. This strategy had failed for some, where these support peope were suddenly gone (for instance, through death or moving  overseas). Without a backup plan for their internet use, these seniors were suddenly digitally excluded again.

It is clear that during these times of home isolation and small social bubbles, seniors cannot rely on their internet support person being available.

Pandemic isolation underlines that everyone would benefit from internet use. Evidence of high levels of digital exclusion in some younger groups should also tell us that the problem of digitally isolated seniors will not just die out.

Government needs to make sure that seniors can afford the internet and are assisted to have the skills and confidence to be digitally included. One-on-one training courses at which they can get information about the latest apps, ask questions and build confidence, is one suggestion. An easily accessible help-desk and subsidised home internet services and devices for people with low income would also help.

Professor Miriam Lips is the Chair in Digital Government, and Dr Elizabeth Eppel is a senior research fellow, in the Wellington School of Business and Government at Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington.

This article was originally published on Stuff.