From administrative paperwork to banking services, social relations and beyond… Digital technology is now an incontrovertible necessity in many human activities. Yet a significant proportion of the population, starting with the eldest, makes little if any use at all of digital tools. In the throes of a public health crisis that is making physical distancing the rule, below is a look at a little-known reality and some solutions for overcoming it.
36% of Brits over the age of 65 never or rarely go on the Internet1. In Europe, only 57% of 55-74 year olds are regular Internet users, compared with 96% of those ages 16-242… All the studies on the subject come to the same conclusion: along with education level, age is a determining factor in the way people use the Internet. While the proportion of Internet users among those over 70 is steadily increasing, much remains to be done.
However, behind these figures are contrasting situations: the “senior” population cannot be considered a uniform block. “Actually, the 60-75 year old segment has taken up digital technology relatively well”, says Périne Brotcorne, a sociology researcher at the Interdisciplinary Research Centre for Work, State and Society (CIRTES) at the Catholic University of Leuven (Belgium). Those over 75 years of age, in contrast, are more at loss, and few of them use technology. When we bring up the subject with them, we can see a mix of distress and anger”. A report by the social start-up WeTechCare3 for instance points out that, up to age 75, the digital divide seems more social than generational: senior citizens form a very diverse group, with varied challenges, desires and obstacles.
Multiple obstacles to overcome
One of the leading causes often brought up is their limited access to technology. Still today, more than half of French people over 75 do not have Internet access in their homes4. Another contributing factor is the lack of skills and learning among older people. 66% of 60-75 year olds and even 90% of over 75-year-olds describe themselves as incapacitated in at least one respect when it comes to the Internet, compared to 47% of the rest of the population5. Likewise, fewer seniors know how to watch videos on the Internet, use social media and navigate the Internet from their smartphone.
Upon closer examination, these explanations share a common origin: the psychological, motivational factor. More than a lack of capacity, it is the way they perceive digital tools that is decisive – the lack of interest shown by this population. Whether fear, fatigue, low self-confidence, or even an ideological rejection, all of these are reasons regularly picked up on by the various international studies on the subject. Their distrust is understandable: “A whole swathe of the population is less in a hurry in the everyday, and has a strong need for social interaction”, notes Périne Brotcorne. Seniors are not clamouring to stay home. Going to the bank, or to the town hall, is a form of social contact. The new digital standard does not necessarily line up with their needs”. That being said, there is no reason why this tendency should be irreversible. The key part played by motivation has a positive side. “When you find a way to convince them, showing how useful digital tools can be, then uptake follows”, says Katerina Zekopoulos, senior public project manager at WeTechCare.
The responsibility needs to be better shared between digital care-providers, digital players and Governments
A careful look at the findings from surveys on the topic could even be cause for some optimism. For instance, 94% of older people who have taken part in training on digital tools reported satisfaction and, as a result, ended up making much more use of the Internet, whether for practical, recreational or social purposes. Yet, in France, for example, only one-third of senior citizens have received assistance or training in this area. Worse still, only 11% of non-Internet users say they would like to take part in such sessions6… Motivation is thus a decisive factor. Emails and social media to sustain bonds with the family, genealogy sites to ensure the history is passed down through the generations, text and video content to encourage openness to the world, and sites to simplify administrative procedures: it is the main areas of interest for senior citizens that need to be put at the heart of awareness-raising and support actions.
Once the desire has been awakened, support options still need to be offered. Yet today, very few European countries have set up nationwide training programmes in the use of new technologies. It is associations or external entities that today carry out the main actions, exemplified by WeTechCare in France. The social start-up has created for instance, “Les Bons Clics”7, an educational learning platform to fight the digital divide by equipping “digital helpers”. “There is still a long way to go, but many initiatives are coming into place”, explains Katerina Zekopoulos. To date, more than 6,000 structures have started using our platform”. One of the key players in digital inclusion are pension funds, such as the Caisse nationale d’assurance vieillesse d’Ile-de-France (Ile-de-France National Old Age Insurance Fund), which offers 10-session group workshops through its prevention offer supported by the PRIF.
With no one able to say when the public health crisis will end, the stakes are now too high to leave these initiatives without greater support. “By emphasising the role of social players and care-providers, we forget the responsibility of the players who created the services”, stresses Périne Brotcorne. “We shift the responsibility onto the users, who need to be trained, learn to learn, etc.” As a result, the burden falls on the users of all ages and levels, as well as on the social players who help them. Not enough is said about the responsibility of those who design the services,” continues the sociologist. “It’s time to flip the discussion, by emphasising the responsibility of the States as well as service providers who are digitising.” Coming up with more inclusive digital solutions: a challenge that is without a doubt overlooked, but nonetheless essential, for digital players.