Digital equity for all ages? Not while ageism rules (Part 1)

Digital equity for all ages? Not while ageism rules (Part 1)

The theme of the UN International Day of Older Persons, 1 October 2021 is ‘Digital Equity for All Ages’.   Each week in October we will explore digital inclusion of older people, beginning with a personal view and a current snapshot of the digital lives of older people in Australia.  Then we take a closer look at digital inclusion of older people in three crucial areas: work; citizenship; and solidarity across generations.  We would love to hear your views and experiences on these issues too ([email protected]).

Part 1: How far have we come? Digital inclusion, older people and ageism

If you are like me – grew up, were educated and spent your early-mid working, social or parenting life in a world without digital devices – you have a love-hate relationship with the digital world. 

All that promise and opportunity – connection to others, jobs, information, entertainment, services – and relief at saving the trees from my paper habit. 

But, also, frustration with the technology; my analogue brain challenged by the demands of a very different way of thinking and acting in the digital world; and sometimes that uncomfortable, fish-out-of-water, flapping-about feeling.

Some of us who did not engage with the digital world at earlier stages of our lives have made a choice not to begin now in later life, for a variety of reasons.  But many of us who would like to be online still face real barriers to reach the promised digital land. 

Just some of these barriers are cost; access to the internet; confidence; skills; scams targeting older people; rarely seeing digital images of anyone fitting your age or other characteristics; the shock of coming across widespread vilification or sending-up of older age on social media and in digital content; negative stereotypes about our ability to learn anything let alone new digital skills.  The list goes on and it all contrives to push many older people to the margins of the digital world, or outside its boundaries altogether.

However, flip the coin, and many older people have overcome those barriers and are living rich digital lives, having taken successive technological changes – including digitisation – in our stride.  We have seen so many of those changes over long lives.  Learning to navigate and conquer them has been a core life capability for lots of older people.

So, what’s the current picture of older Australians and digital inclusion, especially after the experience of the pandemic?  Where do you and I fit in this?  What does it matter if we are not included in (or exclude ourselves from) the digital world?  And very importantly, the question we always ask at EveryAGE Counts – what’s ageism got to do with it?

To set the scene, here’s a snapshot of online involvement of older people. 

According the 2020 Australian Digital Inclusion Index, around one in five older Australians do not use the internet at all.  Those aged 65+ are the least digitally-included age group in Australia, by a long shot.  And the older the person within this age group the more likely they are to be digitally excluded, on all three measures of access to the internet, affordability and digital ability.  Older people score particularly poorly for inclusion on affordability and digital ability.  Notably, women at each age level over 65 score lower than men on each measure.  And scarily, the gap between older and younger people in the Index has increased slightly over recent years. 

On the other hand, fresh research in 2021 from the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) reports that in 2020, nearly all Australian adults went online with the biggest increase by Australians aged 55 and over.  This builds on significant shifts over the past few years, with older people increasingly involved in a broader range of online activities across different devices and connecting to the internet more than ever, mostly through mobile phones and tablets. 

This upbeat view of online engagement by older people during the pandemic will need a closer look though over the coming months and years.  Did the new online habits stick?  And what will the increasingly digitised post-pandemic world mean for an older group either remaining offline altogether or having very low levels of involvement and ability if they are online?

ACMA also makes some interesting relevant points about the gap between increased online behaviour among older people and their actual views of the digital world.  The majority of older people continue to feel overwhelmed by technological change. Their online engagement appears to have been prompted by necessity, rather than seeing benefits of it or feeling confident about doing so.  This highlights the importance of supporting older people’s digital literacy and providing us with the skills to navigate what can be confusing and potentially risky environments.

The good news is that there are lots of allies out there pushing hard to make sure that older people get the best chance possible to participate in the digital world, and they have stepped up their efforts since the COVID-19 pandemic began.  

The Australian Digital Inclusion Alliance (ADIA) found that there are five separate programs (including the prominent Be Connected funded by the federal government and delivered by local organisations in the community) targeting older people’s digital inclusion.  There are many more digital training and support programs out there that are not specifically targeted to older people but nonetheless open to us as well. 

Many advocates also demand that those older people (and those at other ages) who cannot or do not engage with digital services and information at all, are not disadvantaged.  ‘Legacy technology’ such as landline phones, over-the-counter face-to-face engagement and snail mail remain crucial for a segment of the population, to stay connected or access banking, healthcare and government services.  For the foreseeable future we need to couple our pressure for digital support for older people with a demand that those who live a non-digital life have non-digital access to services and are not pushed into social isolation and the margins of society. 

And what about the impact of ageism – negativity towards and stereotypes about older age and discrimination against older people – on our engagement with the digital world? 

Some of those barriers already listed above emerge out of widespread, pervasive ageism in our society and have an impact on our digital engagement in later life.  We often directly or indirectly get the message that we don’t belong in the digital world.  Visual ageism, low involvement of older people in the creation of digital content, age-based insults and putdowns can all add up to us feeling like unwelcome visitors, rather than valued members of the digital society. 

An interesting, recent piece of research in the US reinforces that ageism does indeed contribute to digital exclusion and at the same time reminds us that ageism operates in different ways on different groups of older people.  In this case, researchers looked at the impact of ageism on internet use among older people, by sex.  They found overall a higher level of ageism in people’s lives is associated with a lower level of internet use, but there is an important difference between women and men.  Older men are more negatively affected in internet use by ageism coming from external sources (groups with whom they don’t personally identify much), whereas women are significantly affected in their internet use by ageist pressures from within their own trusted groups – such as family, friends, community. 

This gives us just one example of how one-size-fits-all responses will not work when it comes to challenging ageist barriers undermining digital inclusion of older people.  Older people are a very diverse group and digital inclusion measures, such as training, incentives and community leadership programs, need to be targeted to the specific needs and preferences of different groups of older people, if they are to work. 

And they need to work – there is a lot at stake for older people.

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