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Digital Drop off – a phenomenon we should be talking about

Research argues that the number of internet users over 65 years old is on the rise and has been for some time. This is used by many to justify committing to digital policy and the online world, even for services for older people.

Research published by StatsNZ in 2012 shows that over 65s who use the internet use it just like the rest of us! They use it to find health information (48%) and make online purchases (49%). Just under one-third read digital newspapers or books, one-fifth watch movies and download or listen to music. They also use it to connect to friends, family and others in their community.

Using the internet and technology can also give over 65s a more positive outlook on life; feelings of self-confidence, autonomy, competency, accomplishment, self-esteem and empowerment. It can also increase cognitive function and brain stimulation. No wonder it seems more over 65s are using the internet!

However, is this an accurate representation of internet usage of over 65s?

With life expectancy in New Zealand sitting just under 82, and the oldest living person in New Zealand being 110 years-old, it is clear that “over 65” encompasses a group of people who could have 45 years between them. So, is it accurate to say over 65s are increasingly using the internet? Or is it only a small portion of them?

Information published by StatsNZ in 2012 show that the percentage of 65-74 years-olds who have internet at home is 76%, compared with the 52% of those aged 75+ who have internet at home. This statistic does not necessarily mean the internet is being used by older people. If they have younger family with them, it might be being used by them instead. This line of thought is reflected in the findings that 61% of those who are 65-74 years-old are ‘recent users’ of the internet. This is compared to 32% of those who are 75+. In the space of 10 years there is nearly a 50% reduction in recent internet usage. What makes this statistic even more striking is that ‘recent user’ is classed as someone who has used the internet at least once in the past 12 months.

Why does this drop off occur? From what little research is available, there are multiple reasons why older people stop using technology and the internet. These can include:

Health Changes - Vision and hearing loss or decline, limb, joint and digit dexterity and cognitive ability.

Support - Lack of, cost of and deficiencies in support.

Technology itself – Speed of technology changes, problems with technology and speed/lack of internet connection.

Cost - Costs include cost of the device, software, internet connection, modem as well as the ability to upgrade when the software no longer supports a device.

Design - Design includes both the design of devices as well as websites or apps which impacts the ability to use and navigate technology.

Security and safety concerns - Worries about online scams, hacking, security of personal data etc.

Lack of skills, knowledge and training - Not being confident and having the right training or support makes people less likely to attempt to use new technology. This also includes the inability to understand technical jargon.

Perception - Perceived usefulness and ease of use of the internet/technology.

One thing to note however, is that none of these issues relate to someone’s age.

While one reason may not be enough to stop older people (or any people for that matter) using technology, it is easy to see how a combination of these reasons pose a barrier to technology use.

The realities of digital engagement of older people and the difficulties they have in sustaining it undermine progress on the digital inclusion agenda. This means that providers of products, services and information to and for older people must make sure they are accessible to those who are not in the online space. By choosing to focus on the digital space, companies, organisations and government departments are disadvantaging those who are "dropping off".

Eldernet is committed to making sure all older people are able to access the information they need. Through the Eldernet website and the region-specific “Where from Here” handbook, older people and their support networks are empowered to make informed decisions about their lives. The inability or lack of interest in using technology or the internet should not mean people are in a disadvantaged position. As the 2016 Healthy Ageing Strategy explains in regard to technology use in the health sector, there needs to be “acknowledgement of the tangible benefits of technology, provided no one is excluded or left behind.” No one should be left behind, everyone (government, agencies, providers, media etc.) need to realise that there will be people in our community that will not be technology users and make accommodation for them so that they too can be empowered.

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