Digital Equity for all ages? Not while ageism rules (Part 3) Citizenship and ‘digital citizenship’– rights, participation and ageism

Digital Equity for all ages? Not while ageism rules (Part 3) Citizenship and ‘digital citizenship’– rights, participation and ageism

The 2021 UN International Day of Older Persons theme of Digital Equity for All Ages recognises the serious impacts of exclusion of many older people from the digital world, and places ageism front and centre as part of this problem.   Here we take a closer look at what is at stake for older people as citizens, while ever stereotypes, discrimination and prejudice continue to contribute to our much lower levels of online involvement than other age groups.

‘Digital citizenship’ has become an increasingly important idea and practice in schools, preparing children and young people to be part of the digital world in safe, responsible, ethical, productive and creative ways.  In a simple definition, “A digital citizen is a person with the skills and knowledge to effectively use digital technologies to participate in society, communicate with others and
create and consume digital content.”

Most of the focus in educating children around digital citizenship appears to be on competencies and behaviours to be effective, safe and do no harm in the digital world.  These are equally crucial for others going online for the first time, or escalating their engagement, such as many older people. 

An additional aspect of digital citizenship, however, crucial for all adults, is that the online world is an increasingly central environment for the exercise of general citizenship rights and obligations in the real world.  Those who are excluded from the digital world will increasingly be excluded from key aspects of the three strands of citizenship: civil (such as freedom of speech, access to justice); political (such as voting and engagement with political institutions); and social (such as equal access to communications, education, health and social services).   And as citizenship is fundamentally about connection to a community of people, within a political and social system, exclusion from where the citizenship action is taking place can seriously isolate and marginalise individuals, stripping them of rights and opportunities.

The COVID-19 pandemic has turbo-boosted the already rapid online shift to accessing and participating in each of these forms of citizenship.  Two specific examples with a heavy impact on older people illustrate this. 

Firstly, the great leap forward in healthcare delivered online is a significant shift for many older people as we are large users of the healthcare system.  Secondly, the huge rise in communication with family, friends and community through digital means has been life changing for many older people.  For example, thousands of residents in aged care facilities (experiencing the harshest lockdowns in our country) and many more older people isolating in the community, have relied on digital communications for the first time, as the only way to see the faces of those they care about and stay informed. 

These changes offered older people crucial lifelines during the pandemic but have also been a stressful challenge for many hitherto not using digital technologies, and some who did not make the shift were simply left isolated.

What should be the response to ensure that increasing digitisation does not further exclude older people from the capacity to engage in citizenship rights and obligations and be recognised as full participants in our society?  As we have discussed in previous parts of this series, it will need to be a conscious, explicit, multi-pronged commitment, because older people are diverse and ad hoc actions will not be sufficient. 

For a start, all those older people who remain completely offline and wish to change that situation, need the continued support of their communities and governments to make the shift (see Be Connected for the extensive network of training and support available).  A change in the way public and media discourse represents older people as digitally incompetent and unable to learn will be essential to this. 

In addition, the wide range of digital capability among older people needs to be acknowledged and addressed.  Some older people need no assistance at all and are already completely capable online.  Many others, though, are capable with digital technology for basic communications and consumer needs but flounder when faced with complex online service delivery or similar forms of participation. 

Governments and essential businesses that are rapidly moving to digital-by-default delivery are yet to do enough to act on their responsibilities to make online participation for all older people (and other digitally excluded groups) viable.  This can be done, for example, by

  • providing user-friendly tutorials and meaningful Help functions as each new service or update is rolled out and incorporating these more broadly into community training programs for older people
  • designing apps, programs and service delivery around the needs of older users, involving older people in co-design of online services where we are key users
  • incorporating age friendly interface design that takes account of and responds to more common interaction patterns, needs and preferences found among older adults, to do with things like: tactile practices on devices; time taken to work through a form or information; motivation levels to engage online; concern about privacy and safety of information and a desire to know how our data will be used; simple and intuitive (to non-digital natives!) navigation structures on platforms; and Help functions that are designed and tested to actually help.

Just as importantly, governments must also continue to offer those (including many older people) who are not engaged with the digital world the option of other channels through which to exercise their citizenship. 

The ABS has provided a good model of this in its efforts to ensure that all Australians are seen and heard in the snapshot of citizenry taken in the Census.  Although the Australian Census is now digital-by-default, significant efforts are still made to reach and engage those people who require an alternative channel to participate.  This example is especially important because the Census is a crucial public practice that ensures the visibility of older people; when a key outcome of ageism is our invisibility.

The UN theme of ‘digital equity at all ages’ offers an essential global focus on addressing the exclusion of older people from the rights and benefits increasingly only available in the online world. 


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