Rise in ‘Social Seniors’ can help reduce digital exclusion

July 17, 2017

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By Lyndsey Burton, founder of Choose, a UK broadband comparison site and information resource.

At a time when there’s talk in the UK of deepening generational divides, it was heartening to hear recently that the older segments of the population are increasingly joining their younger counterparts online. This is what was revealed in the latest Adults’ Media Use and Attitudes report from Ofcom, who found in their public survey that “record numbers of older people are embracing smart and social technology.”

Among the various trends identified by Ofcom, the telecoms regulator discovered that the number of people aged between 65 and 74 who possess a smartphone has increased by 11% in a single year, rising from 28% in 2015 to 39% in 2016. Similarly, they also learnt that tablet and smartphone use among over-75s has almost doubled, moving from 15% to 27% in the case of tablets, and from 8% to 15% in the case of smartphones.

As might be imagined, this increase in the use of connected devices has led to a corresponding increase in the number of older people taking advantage of apps and services. For example, the percentage of over-75s with a social media profile has surged from 19% in 2015 to 41% in 2016, underlining how the increase in digital connectedness comes with an increase in (online) social networking. Yet more importantly, it shows how an increase in such connectedness has considerable potential for putting more of the elderly and the vulnerable in touch with vital public services.

In order to support this claim, it’s worth noting that, historically, digital exclusion has been associated with not only increased loneliness and decreased well-being, but also with a disproportionate lack of access to essential services. In 2015, an Age UK report revealed that the charity was regularly being contacted by older people “who do not use the internet and who have had difficulty accessing services including the Blue Badge scheme … residents’ parking permits, help to pay the council tax and housing.” Likewise, Citizens Advice stated last August that those coming to them for help were “twice as likely to lack basic digital skills than adults in the UK.”

Despite the progress that’s been made in recent years, it would be unwise to become complacent, and to think that the problems of digital exclusion for older people are being inevitably solved. For one, that’s because Ofcom’s report also highlights that although 27% and 15% of over-75s now use a tablet or smartphone, 73% and 85% do not. Indeed, of the 4.8 million adults that the ONS say “had never used the internet in 2017,” 2.6 million were aged 75 or older. There are still significant tasks ahead of the UK if it wants to keep older people in touch with online public services.

As well as drawing attention to the older people who still don’t use the internet, Ofcom’s report also found that 20% of over-65s described themselves as “not confident” online, compared to 8% across the population as a whole. This underscores another important challenge, which is that even if we do manage to connect everyone to the internet, digital exclusion will be far from fixed. The drive to get people online has to be accompanied by a drive to teach them the skills necessary to making the most of being online. Otherwise, the benefits to citizens will be limited and the potential of digital participation not fully realised.