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Attitudes more important than access in encouraging elderly to adopt tech, study suggests

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Concerns about the negative societal impacts of technology and anxiety about making mistakes online are major barriers to the adoption of digital technologies among older people, a UK study has found.

Despite frequent jokes about Facebook being flooded by enthusiastic elderly relatives, a considerable ‘digital divide’ between older adults and young people remains.

While greater numbers of older adults are confidently accessing the internet, this group of people use significantly fewer digital applications and spend less time on the internet than younger generations. In some respects, this could mean fewer opportunities for older adults, such as less access to online shopping and streaming services.

In order to better understand why many older adults are still reluctant to come online, a team of researchers at Lancaster University have been conducting interviews with these people. The study suggests that while this group of people has access to digital technologies, their values and anxieties were holding them back from adopting these technologies.

In particular, older people who had not yet embraced the internet tend to be less certain about the desirability of technology than younger people. A major concern of older adults relates to the societal impact of technology, such as online retail threatening local shopkeepers and, in turn, the local community.

“The fact that digital technologies can and do make certain jobs obsolete is a common concern for older adults who worry about their grandchildren’s job prospects,” said Dr Bran Knowles of Lancaster University. “Developing solutions to attend to this wider societal problem appears to be key to fostering acceptance of digital technologies among older adults.”

Fears of making mistakes while using technology also hold this group back from embracing digital technologies. For instance, many interviewees suggested that security concerns were a deterrent, particularly as they did not feel confident with how to use sensitive internet services securely, such as online banking.

In other cases, some older people considered online tools such as price comparison websites more arduous and time-consuming to learn how to use than they were worth and preferred to leave some decision making to trained experts. In some cases, older people used their age as justification for avoiding technology; the researchers referred to this as the “playing the age card”.

“Older adults themselves are often the worst perpetuators of the myth that old age precludes engagement with a myriad of digital technologies,” said Knowles. “Doing so allows older adults a privilege not available to most working-age adults to take personal stands against the aspects of technology they find worrying, threatening or just plain annoying.”

The researchers suggested that designers of internet services could do far more to offer protection and reassurance to older users currently unwilling to engage online.

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