Digital inclusion among those aged over 55: Policy directions

byAlexander van Deursen

Each phase of internet access (motivation, material access, skills and use) plays an important role in achieving positive outcomes and that the four phases have a sequential and conditional character. This does not mean that the promotion of motivation and the use of sufficient equipment automatically results in a high level of skills. Each phase depends on a series of (different) indicators that interact with each other in the emergence of digital inequality. Furthermore, the sequential and conditional nature of internet access does not mean that attitude and motivation are the top priority, material access the second priority and improving digital skills the third priority. For example, skills are insufficiently taught in the event of a lack of motivation or without suitable equipment to use the internet. If we look at the group of over-55s, we can first emphasize that policies that target digital inclusion among those over 55 should ideally tackle all phases simultaneously.

Age already plays a role at the beginning of the internet access process. The over-55s group has a moderately positive attitude and motivation towards the Internet compared to the 18 to 55-year-old group. There appears to be a significant group among the over-65s who do have access to the internet, but do not use it. Previous research has shown that this applies mainly to female seniors, suggesting that internet use among seniors is still partly a male-dominated activity. Since ICT-related professions and skills have historically been seen as masculine, this is not surprising. Although performance measurements of internet skills do not show differences between men and women, we always see that women score lower in self-assessments. Stereotypically, men are considered to be good with technology, while women would not be. In particular, this hampers access for female seniors as they have had more exposure to such values in their lifetime compared to younger generations.

After attitude and motivation, we see that the over-55s lag behind when it comes to using devices to use the internet. Compared to the 18 to 55 age group, the diversity of devices used to surf the internet is smaller and all devices, with the exception of the desktop computer, are used less. So even though the physical access rate in the 55-75 age group reaches a saturation point, there is inequality. In the group of 75 years and older, physical access is also lagging behind.

In terms of digital skills, people over 55 score lower on each skill than people in the 18 to 55 age group. People over 55 therefore have a relatively great need for policy to improve digital skills. This is confirmed by the finding that 72% of the over-55s sometimes ask for help. Help from partners and children plays an important role in this, which may indicate that single people over 55 are more likely to be left out when it comes to getting help. Nevertheless, 17% of those seeking assistance do not feel that they are being helped, probably because the help comes from people with a similar background (for example, educational level).

“The skill levels of those aged over 55 and the available support suggest that the shortage of digital skills will not automatically disappear.”

Unfortunately, national policies seem to be increasingly geared towards preparing people for the IT industry, while society is crying out for the development of skills for 'everyday' internet use. People over 55 have never used computers and the internet at school and partly at work and are therefore partly left to themselves when learning digital skills. Now informal learning is on the one hand a natural, motivating, fast and easy way to learn, on the other hand it is opportunistic. Informal learning works best when combined with appropriate types of instruction in the form of tutoring, training or courses. For people who have not learned to use computers and the Internet at school or at home, support in the form of formal computer education (computer lessons and books) is an important way to learn digital skills. Motivation is very important in adult education practice. This can be supported by aligning the course offer with the needs of, for example, the (advanced) age.

It should be noted that the 55 to 65-year-old group is often left out when it comes to teaching digital skills. For seniors 65 and older, the skills problems are more apparent. In addition, the workplace is believed to be an important resource for learning digital skills for people up to the age of 65. Unfortunately, the importance of training is underestimated by both management and employees. The formal organizational solutions to problems with the use of ICT at work are often insufficient. The helpdesk serves as an emergency aid that mainly provides technical assistance. ICT training or education is only organized incidentally.\

If we look at the activities that people over 55 carry out, a few things stand out. The observed differences between the age groups correspond to the so-called "usage gap" which claims that online activities reflect all spheres of daily life. The most important conclusion is perhaps that for people over 55 the chance that the internet will contribute to an improved position in society is smaller compared to the group aged 18 to 55 years. Here too, the often disadvantaged group is put at an even greater disadvantage in this way. Unfortunately, this is not getting through enough to policymakers. It cannot automatically be assumed that a sufficient attitude and motivation and having an internet connection will automatically lead to the mastery of digital skills or the performance of a wide range of activities that are interesting for the group, let alone tangible results achieved. Existing benchmarks and evaluations should not focus solely on access and skills. These are conditions, but do not necessarily lead to positive outcomes. It is important for policy to distinguish different areas of attention.

“As a starting point, researchers and policymakers could take the potential outcomes of internet access.”

The focus must not only be on economically functional, practical and normatively valued forms of internet use, but also on other popular, less normatively valued activities. Consider, for example, outcomes in relation to social networks or health.

However, the conclusion that we must distinguish different areas of attention for the over-55s is in itself too simplistic. This is because it is not a homogeneous group of people, even when they are online. We have now only talked about age, but further segmentation is necessary to develop truly targeted policy. Life course, social environment, socio-economic status, vitality, psychological or cognitive characteristics determine how the Internet is used and which outcomes are most relevant to someone. For example, for people over 65, when they live alone, there is too little access to support when using the internet; they do not learn from a partner or anyone else in the household.

“Policy will not be optimal without taking into account the variations in the age group 55 and over.”

Interventions should therefore ideally focus first on mapping out challenges for various groups of over-55s in terms of economic, cultural, social and personal well-being.

“This suggests that the media should be alerted to positive examples of what people over 55 can get out of the Internet.”

We now often see an exposure of the negative side of the internet, stories about privacy violations, internet crime or fake news. Positive framing will give seniors more confidence and make what the internet has to offer more concrete. Establishing a clear connection between the internet and the interests of the over-55s is a precondition. Subsequently, it can be determined for each of these groups in which phase (s) of internet access - attitude and motivation, material access, skills and use - the greatest obstacles occur.