Don't mention digital
Why are so many older people confident and enthusiastic internet users, while others are more sceptical, and some just don’t want to know?
By James Richardson, Research Manager, Good Things Foundation
For the last four months I’ve been conducting fieldwork for our project with the Centre for Ageing Better, ‘I Am Digitally Connected’. We’ve been working together to find out why so many older people are confident and enthusiastic internet users, while others are more sceptical, and some just don’t want to know. The research has taken me across the UK, talking to new learners taking their first steps, non-users curious to know what all the fuss is about, and others who wear their status as a technophobe as a badge of honour.
Having carefully prepared my questions, I immediately — and I mean in the first minute of my first interview — encountered a problem: it can be rather hard to identify where internet use actually begins. The lady I was speaking to insisted she’d never used the internet — and then pulled out her smartphone, and started describing sending her family photos by email, and looking up health information online. ‘I didn’t know that was the internet,’ she said, bemused but rather proud when I explained that it definitely was. But not knowing it hadn’t stopped her from doing it — and it’s hard to see how knowing the right words would have helped her to do it better.
In fact, I soon found that putting labels on digital activity is not only unnecessary, but actually offputting for some older people. For the more reluctant participants in the research, with no firsthand experience of the internet to provide some context, it was seen as a dangerous and unpleasant place: younger relatives addicted to smartphones; people being frivolous or unpleasant on social media; the risk of scams and identity theft. And if you don’t understand what’s dangerous and what isn’t, the best approach is to keep away from all of it. When asked why she didn’t go on the internet at all, ever, for any reason, one participant explained that ‘you hear of that many things on television, on the news, about there’s been a scam for this and there’s been a scam for that. I don’t want to know.’ ‘The internet’ is seen as one big bad place, with your negative perceptions of parts of it colouring how you see the whole thing.
Self-confidence was another huge issue for the older people I spoke to, who had to deal with a double whammy of negative cultural perceptions: the beliefs that cognitive ability declines with age, and that older people aren’t at home with computers and the internet.
Self-confidence was another huge issue for the older people I spoke to, who had to deal with a double whammy of negative cultural perceptions: the beliefs that cognitive ability declines with age, and that older people aren’t at home with computers and the internet. ‘I think it makes us seem stupid,’ one lady observed. ‘This is what you’re frightened of.’ And again, simply naming the thing, and thinking about it as an undifferentiated whole, affected participants’ belief that this was something they were capable of understanding — even if they wanted to. There’s a huge amount of literature on this subject, called ‘stereotype threat’, where people do worse at activities that ‘people like them’ are assumed to be bad at.
A good researcher has to be aware of themselves and I started to notice that I was doing exactly the same thing as my participants: creating this monolithic thing called ‘the internet’ and asking people if they used it, why they used it, why they didn’t, what they thought about it — and it struck me that the very language we use to analyse the problem we’re trying to solve (non-users, new users, lapsed users, narrow users…) reflects and reinforces the sense that many non-users have, that they’re somehow fundamentally different from internet users. I’ve heard this sense of difference described from a position of superiority (I’m not like those rude people who walk down the street staring at their smartphones) as well as inferiority (it’s too complicated for someone like me). Either way, any common group between internet users and the people who held these beliefs — in need, ability and background — was blotted out.
If you think the ‘the internet’ is dangerous, complicated, or irrelevant to your life, you’re not likely to be drawn in by broad messages about ‘how much you can do’ online, how you can ‘make the most’ of it, or the ‘whole new world’ it represents.
Part of the problem is, we practitioners are so excited about all of the things that the internet can do that we forget what it might be like to be on the receiving end of our enthusiasm. If you think the ‘the internet’ is dangerous, complicated, or irrelevant to your life, you’re not likely to be drawn in by broad messages about ‘how much you can do’ online, how you can ‘make the most’ of it, or the ‘whole new world’ it represents. Some of the older people I spoke to simply loved learning for its own sake, and actively sought out opportunities to get online: ‘I will read any notice anywhere, so that’s how I found out,’ as one lady put it. But for those without this general motivation the internet can only be made relevant by attaching it to specific, individual needs, and those needs (not ‘the internet’) has to be put in the foreground.
Of course there are fantastic marketing materials available for free to the Online Centres network, and innovative approaches used by Centre staff and volunteers around the country to try to find personal ‘hooks’ that make the learning experience relevant. What we want to do with our findings is to develop new approaches like leveraging word-of-mouth recommendations and peer support, and user testing new marketing materials to find the messages that will pique the interest of the hardest to reach.
We also need to take a service design approach that recognises that the best solution is the one that works for individuals — and that may not always be digital. I’ve spoken to plenty of older people who have opportunity and social resources, and have decided against going online from a well-informed position of strength.
Finally, I’m not saying we should never use the words ‘digital’, ‘internet’, ‘online’ or anything else — but we need to think about how and when we say them, and acknowledge the effect they can have on older people’s willingness to engage.
First published on Medium.
Image courtesy of Maytree Photography
Good Things Foundation is the UK’s leading digital inclusion organisation, helping the most vulnerable and excluded in society to engage with and benefit from digital technology. Working with the national network of over 5,000 Online Centres, Good Things Foundation has supported more than 2 million people across the country to become digitally confident and capable since 2010. Good Things Foundation provides a suite of free online learning tools to support digital and social inclusion, including the Learn My Way basic digital skills platform.