In 2019, the Australian Digital Inclusion Index (ADII) reported an overall improvement in access, affordability and digital ability [PDF, 1.64MB]. While the digital divide between younger and older Australians grew steadily until 2018, older people are still falling behind in their capacity to access and make use of the internet. This is particularly the case for vulnerable groups, including indigenous communities, older women, people on lower incomes and those not living in a major city.
Where older Australians live is an important determining factor, as many regional, rural or remote locations do not have the digital infrastructure to ensure access [PDF, 2.1MB] to the internet equal to that of metropolitan centres.
Barriers to digital literacy
The Australian Government defines Digital Citizenship as “confident and positive engagement with digital technology; 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”. Digital literacy can be defined as the skills, knowledge and understanding required to use technology and new media.
One of the biggest barriers to digital citizenship for older people is attitudinal and the often implicit ageist assumptions about the relevance of technology to this age group. In our research developing digital literacy programs for older adults at the UWA Social Care and Social Ageing Living Lab, participants will often say things like, “I am too old to learn”, or “technology is not for old people”.
In addition, family, carers and service providers express similar sentiments and can be the biggest gatekeepers in their efforts to ‘protect’ older people from technology. And yet, these responses often indicate a lack of awareness about the potential role and transformative capacity of digital access for older people.
A related critical factor to attitude to technology, is the motivation to use it. Rather than asking, ‘would you like to learn how to use digital technologies?’, asking instead, ‘would you like to learn how to stay more connected to your grandchildren?’ provides both an explanation of the value and a rational for digital engagement. And ageist approaches to ageing and technology run deep—who amongst us is not guilty of giving our older relatives our out-of-date and glitchy digital device hand-me-downs which further hamper their ability to learn.
Recent research shows that using social technology improves users’ attitudes towards technology, challenging the assumption that reluctant technology users lack the ability or motivation to use and learn about technology. To the contrary, users quickly realise that technology makes communication easier and saves time.
This said, facilitating effective digital connectivity for older people is not easy, particularly for those in residential care settings, with detailed implementation work required to address the known barriers to effective uptake of technological approaches. In particular, our research shows clearly that if technology use is not embedded in social relationships, it tends to not be used, or used ineffectively.
Older people want social relationships, not technology, so technology must be seen as a tool to facilitate social relations rather than a replacement. Furthermore, digital inclusivity for some people needs to be facilitated by others, and this is an opportunity for intergenerational engagement as young people can be recruited to set up and manage the digital access of older people.
There is much to learn from migrants in this regard, who are amongst the highest users of Information and Communication technologies in Australia.
Figure 1 Comparison of internet use among Australian and non-Australian born
Source: Roy Morgan Single Source Australia: July to December 2016 sample n = 24,853 Australians 14+ including 6,980 born overseas.
Migrants are particularly highly motivated to learn how to use digital and virtual ways of staying in touch with their loved ones overseas, including both the advantages and the pitfalls that virtual connectivity can bring. This is why we should really be talking about physical distancing and not social distancing during this pandemic; while we must remain physically distant from others, it is important to remain socially connected at the same time, for mental health and wellbeing.