By Nicol Turner-Lee
According to a 2015 Pew Research Center study, 82 percent of older adults who owned smartphones described them as liberating, compared to 64 percent of those ages 18 to 29 who were asked the same question. Older adults also were more likely to describe their smartphones as “connectors,” allowing them to call, text and email. While older adults have historically been late adopters to new technology, an Internet connection has become less of a luxury and more of a necessity for them.
Despite older adults’ enthusiasm about smartphones, only 42 percent of people ages 65 and older own one, compared with 92 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds, says a 2017 Pew poll. Older adults also are less likely to have a home broadband connection (51 percent), compared to 77 percent of those ages 18 to 29. And older adults make up a sizeable number of people who have never been online, at approximately 41 percent. When comparing differences between older adults, people older than age 80 are less likely to be digitally motivated, compared to baby boomers.
Contemporary online tools like social media have enabled older adults to bridge geographic gaps with their families. Advances in telemedicine foster the increased use of health-monitoring devices and improve communications with doctors. Technology allows more older adults to age in place with the advent of in-home sensors and other such devices.
Without technology access, older Americans face an uphill battle to attain first-class digital citizenship. Consequently, policy makers must intervene to ensure that older Americans have secure and affordable Internet access.
Older Adults and the Digital Divide
Today, older adults are not online due to myriad reasons. Certain medical conditions can make navigating new technology via small screens and keyboards physically challenging. Older adults generally distrust online resources, which contributes to their apprehension about getting connected. The broadband service can be cost-prohibitive, particularly for low-income and fixed-income elders. And there are a number of older adults who still harbor reservations regarding the Internet’s value in their daily life.
Thirteen percent of all Americans report that they do not use the Internet, and older adults comprise a large portion of these non-adopters, according to 2016 Pew research. Generally, more women (15 percent) than men (12 percent) are not online. Compared to 13 percent of whites, a higher percentage of African Americans and Latinos (16 percent each) remain unconnected. Individuals who earn less than $30,000 annually (23 percent), have less than a high school diploma (34 percent) and live in rural areas (22 percent), constitute the millions of Americans who do not use the Internet. When age is factored in, these disparities are exacerbated.
Differences in device ownership and online activities also exist among older adults. Research from AARP in 2016 found that adults ages 50 to 59 were more likely to own a range of computing devices, e.g., desktop, laptop, e-reader or tablet, compared to adults older than age 70, who were less likely to have any such devices.
Adults younger than age 70 engage in multiple online activities, including social media, banking or streaming online content. While adults older than age 70 with technology access have been shown to under-use these resources.
These nuanced differences among older adults matter, as life expectancies increase and technology promotes improved health outcomes and physical independence.
Technology and Public Policy
Public policies are critical in narrowing the digital divide for older adults and ensuring more accessible broadband access. Established in 1985, the Lifeline program addresses the affordability gap for low-income populations. This federal program originally provided a $9.25 monthly household subsidy to buffer the cost of wired telephone service, which was later updated to include wireless cellular service. Last year, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which has oversight over this means-tested program, moved to qualify broadband for the subsidy.
According to Lifeline program data, more than 40 percent of older adults are eligible for the subsidy. As the current FCC attempts to change the Lifeline program, policy makers should be reminded that older adults constitute a large number of the program’s beneficiaries, requiring access to essential communications with 911 and other emergency service providers, healthcare practitioners, family and friends and other caregivers. Policies and programs addressing privacy and security also are important for this cohort. More than 60 percent of older adults, according to the ABC News story, have been the target of online scams ranging from fraudsters posing as computer tech repair personnel (Post Star, 2017) to malware attacks. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC), and organizations like the Better Business Bureau Institute for Marketplace Trust, have been working to address many of these scams against older Americans and bring aggressive law enforcement action against the imposters (Senate Judiciary Committee testimony, 2016). Since creating the new complaint category, “tech support scams,” more than 39,921 complaints were registered with the FTC, costing consumers more than $8 million dollars and affecting 76 percent of adults older than age 50.
Efforts to directly tackle these scams and provide tailored consumer education for older adults should not be undermined by the current leadership’s efforts to revamp the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau or potentially weaken consumers’ online privacy protections.
Broadband access must be viewed as one of many fundamental civil rights. As older adults are impacted by strains on the current and future healthcare system, they must be able to lean on telemedicine practices, which facilitate healthy aging-in-place programs and physical independence. Guaranteeing that all older adults have unfettered Internet access will maintain the vibrancy of these alternatives and others, while ensuring that they aren’t further disadvantaged in the technology revolution.
Nicol Turner-Lee, Ph.D., is a fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Center for Technology Innovation and a contributor to TechTank, in Washington, D.C.
Editor’s Note: This article appears in the May/June, 2017, issue of Aging Today, ASA’s bi-monthly newspaper covering issues in aging research, practice and policy nationwide. ASA members receive Aging Today as a member benefit; non-members may purchase subscriptions at our online store.