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How do the elderly and young use the Internet?

We doubt it. In the article we ask about the nature of obstacles for significant increases in the participation rate among the elderly and pose the question which needs of this group are served – or not. We presume that socio-structural arguments help to answer this question and introduce a specific concept of “technological generations” as an explanatory variable. As a strong contrast group, we take young people, a group with a very high Internet penetration.

Using the concept of technological generations we look at formal and informal learning of young and elderly people in the German context. We use survey material and field impressions we gained in various technology related studies.

“Age Concern” found that male seniors mostly go online for information or to pursue their hobbies, whereas women prefer to use the Internet to communicate with close friends and family (NUA, 2002). We presume that the Internet interest of elderly male users is somehow influenced by their former job experiences.

Most of our arguments are taken from German Internet research and the discourse on the digital divide. It might be the case – given a current controversial discussion about the “burden” of the elderly – that a new definition of “generation” might be more appropriate. Rosenmayr’ definition of “generation” is a “polarisation of interests of age related large groups which mutually allocate and deny each-others resources” [30]. This would mean that inclusion rhetoric is good for economically sound times; when it comes to periods of stagnation and crisis only appeals to self-help or the invocation of the market to provide courses would remain. The “silvermedia” experience shows that there is a potential for age-specific courses and for low-level introductory courses.

When professional instruction is advocated the problem of special support is at a different level. A lot depends on the instructor’s image of the elderly. Reading the literature on the need for the participation of the elderly [24] we discover between the lines two inadequate approaches. The first is viewing the elderly in a deficient position, needing paternalistic help from the outside to discover online information related to their interests. This approach entails the risk of putting the elderly into a golden cage with special “senior” options; this approach certainly backfires as many of the edlerly do not do not identify with a “geezer” image [25].

You need a device, a problem and someone who can help you to solve the problem. This is the big advantage of the young generation, who are socialised into this muddling through approach. Older individuals essentially have to unlearn some routines in order to deal with technology. However they have considerable latecomer advantages [23].

  • Most of our arguments are taken from German Internet research and the discourse on the digital divide.
  • There are good reasons why they refuse to participate.
  • The first is viewing the elderly in a deficient position, needing paternalistic help from the outside to discover online information related to their interests.

It requires – like most successful learning activities – a lot of manpower for support and instruction, plus a technical infrastructure. This works fine as long as a basic (State) funding is guaranteed, which in Germany was for a long time the case in most of the age-specific learning services. It becomes more difficult now with budget cuts by various governmental agencies. As a result specific learning institutions for the elderly lose not only considerable part of their clients but also resources to maintain their technical infrastructure. minimal requirements in order to effectively use use search engines, these individuals are excluded.

Most sites meet the needs of experienced young male users, whereas the need and interest of elderly women, the majority of the senior potential, are not targeted. Generally, for the elderly the Internet has a different collective significance than in other generations. In this article we present limits to the individual (motivational) approach, holding that access is a structural problem (e.g., the integration of the work and non-work spheres), as, for example, expressed in social network approaches (Stegbauer, 2001). The work sphere requires computer literacy and gives a magnitude of Internet use-reasons.

Generally young heavy users have more public and scientific attention than “light” or casual users or non-users. There are at least three types of “heavy” Internet users among the population. The first group represents Internet users who perform their online activities nearly exclusively at work, often mixing corporate and private interests. A second group uses the Internet equally at work and home. We might describe these individuals as young professionals, for whom technology use is permanently part of their lifestyle.

The diffusion rate among the elderly is increasing, but will continue to lag behind the figures of the young users. Cultural preparations and easy access modes are essential for the elderly, who could make use of latecomer advantages. Informal learning and peer group support will be crucial for the diffusion of the Internet among the elderly.

Our aim is to understand these reasons and to study obstacles for access by the elderly. This may explain why different adoption speeds relates to age. Both the “pre-technological” and the “household revolution” generation did not have the same opportunities to find support among Internet-skilled friends, because their friends had no experience and there are only a few enthusiastic about the Internet. These few Internet users lack opportunities to exchange their experiences with others, as in other generations.

gerd munker

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December 17, 2014

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