In Margaret Richardson’s research, the group of older people who did not use the internet did not, on the whole, see this as negative in terms of how they socialised with family and friends, nor how they participated in leisure or community activities. Nor was accessing goods, services, and information adversely affected, provided viable alternatives were available. This is an important qualification.
For instance, most interviewees did not feel disadvantaged where there were options such as telephone banking, automatic payments for bills, or visiting the post office and paying their accounts by EFTPOS. Some preferred manual methods because it was familiar and they felt in control, others did so because it was a way of ‘keeping the brain alive’. Others said that “going out” provided the additional benefits of socialising and physical exercise. One of the men said: “I go to the bank, I know all the tellers by name and they know me. I prefer the personal touch.”
Nevertheless they sometimes felt stigmatised – they felt others considered them ‘odd’ or ‘different’ or ‘stupid’; side-lined – left out of some communications; and penalised – unable to access some goods or special offers which were only available online.
Why not use the internet?
The main reasons were three-fold. Firstly, lack of relevance or perceived usefulness;
many non-users had no personal need or desire for the internet and were unwilling to commit money and time to acquiring the technology and learning how to use it. Secondly, for many the internet had negative associations. It was associated with concerns about privacy, safety, scams, and viruses, wasting time and becoming addicted. There were also concerns about a loss of autonomy and the ability to think for oneself. On the other hand, not using the internet was associated with benefits, such as chances to interact face-to-face. “The opportunity to get physical exercise, taking a letter to a post box rather than sitting at the computer to send an email.”
Thirdly, usability could be a barrier. For some, the technology was seen as complex and they lacked the ability and/or the confidence to use it. Others felt they had no one to teach them or were too embarrassed to ask for help.
Encouraging greater internet use
A trend to online-only access to information and services or provision penalises internet non-users. It will make it harder for them to participate and belong in the future. Do individuals have a right to choose to be an internet non-user? How important is it to preserve viable alternatives for communicating and accessing products, services, and information?
If the aim is to encourage greater internet use, instead of applying coercion or penalties – announcements by the post office that mail deliveries will be reduced from once a day to a few times a week – the research suggests some positive moves. Older people need to be persuaded of personally meaningful reasons for going online, such as staying in touch with distant family members, pursuing a particular hobby or interest, or meeting a particular need.
The barriers/concerns identified, including affordability, usability, security or negative associations, need to be addressed. There is a role for families, providing ongoing support to older people, being patient, and demonstrating how to identify and manage the opportunities and risks of being on-line. Family members can become digital mentors, or digital intermediaries – using the internet for an older person, allowing them to become users by proxy.
Collaborations across public, private, and voluntary sectors offer examples of how to raise awareness and how to help people go online. Margaret’s research gives the example of an arrangement between Westpac Bank and SeniorNet. This provides Westpac with the opportunity to raise awareness of the advantages of online banking and educate its older customers about safety and security through a series of nation-wide seminars. Follow-up workshops, conducted at SeniorNet learning centres in a supportive environment, provide customers with hands-on instruction in the mechanics of online banking, which helps to build confidence before ‘going live’.
Other partnerships could also help to raise awareness of the value and usefulness of the internet among older people. Margaret concludes by asking for consideration of targeted financial assistance packages, similar to those offered during the switchover to digital TV, to help older people acquire, install, and learn to use a computer.