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Digital skills for life

How the digital divide affects older adults’ use of technology during COVID-19

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic many of us are relying on technology a lot more but not everyone has access to these tools to support their daily living and wellbeing at home.

In this guest blog, Dr Gemma Wilson highlights the barriers that older adults face when trying to access technology and why a digital-centred world doesn’t work for everyone.

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic many of us are relying on technology a lot more than usual. For many, technology is now our main source of communication – work meetings via Zoom, family chats on FaceTime, WhatsApp messaging. Online food deliveries have become the norm and online banking and health services are more important than ever. And digital communication platforms are even enabling us to continue hobbies or exercise routines. But not everyone has access to these tools to support their daily living and wellbeing at home. Even those with access to this technology may not have access to the necessary platforms, or the skills to use these platforms. There is a divide between those able to access and those excluded from online support.

There are an ever-growing number of older adults using the internet and social media, with notable increased use across the UK, USA, and Europe over the last decade. However, older adults remain less likely than younger generations to use the internet and social media.

Funded by the British Academy/Leverhulme Trust, we’ve been looking at some of the barriers faced by older people when it comes to using technology. We identified the following key barriers:

1. Self-confidence

In the study we carried out, some participants experienced low confidence, perceiving themselves as being novices and not ‘technology minded’, and some lacked patience with technology.

2. Fear

Some were fearful that they would break the devices, do something “wrong” that they couldn’t amend, or they were worried about privacy issues. We also know from existing research that older adults are more vulnerable to misinformation.

3. Physical functioning

Some also experienced physical barriers. For example, for some the text was too small, making it difficult to read, or the buttons were too small. 

4. Culture and communication

We found that cultural differences around communication impacted the way older adults used social media and their online connections. While some participants were more active users of social media, others were more passive. Some worried about how they would come across using social media or didn’t like the way others communicated via social media.

5. Lack of social capital

Finally, an individual’s social network was highly influential in getting them started with using technology and was important for ongoing support and maintenance of using digital devices and social media. Often without this existing social network, individuals would not have received the digital device, would not have gotten started with it, or would not have any support to keep using it.

The reliance on technology during the COVID-19 pandemic will bring the “digital divide” to the fore as many will continue to rely heavily on technology during this period and for as long as we are social distancing. During these measures, it is important that we consider those who are unable to rely on technology in a way that others can, as well as those that do have access but continue to experience barriers to use. In particular, we need to think about those who are no longer being able to rely on social networks like friends or family for help in using technology. This lack of access significantly heightens inequalities for so many people in all different ways, and a more digitally-centred world isn’t necessarily achievable for everyone. It’s vital that those who struggle to use tech or get online aren’t left behind in this period.

Dr Gemma Wilson is a Health Psychologist, and a Research Fellow in Applied Health at Northumbria University, Newcastle. Her research interests are in ageing, psychosocial wellbeing, digital inclusion, social participation, digital health.

To find out more about this study, the podcast 'Ageing in a Digital World' is available to listen/download on SoundCloud, Spotify and iTunes

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