Issue Two Feature Article:
Seniors and the Internet
By: Joyce Philbeck
Think about Seniors in Cyberspace...what comes into your mind? Perhaps the words, yeah, right? If so, you are not alone. Many people, including the elderly themselves, believe that seniors are technophobics, defined as those who can't even program their VCRs, much less use a computer or even begin to understand how to navigate the World Wide Web.
However, times are changing. More and more elderly people are using the Internet. In fact, they are the fastest growing Internet user group (Sorenson 1997). There are many different reasons for the rapid expansion of this group, as I will discuss later in this paper. But one that seemed to be extremely prevalent was to keep in touch with their grandchildren and to learn the same things their grandchildren were learning about in regard to computers and the Internet.
Computer companies are beginning to realize that the elderly population is a growing market. However, the elderly themselves realized they needed more help learning and understanding the Internet long before the computer companies did, and they have created hundreds of sites to aide in that process, some of which I will discuss later.
I will also turn my attention to the possible health and social benefits the Internet can provide for the elderly. There is very little study done on this subject, but the ones that have been completed are hopeful that keeping the mind active through Internet usage will provide some long term effects.
Facts and Figures
A survey done by SeniorNet, a national nonprofit organization, finds that overall computer ownership among adults aged 55 to 75 is 30%. In July of 1994 the percentage was 21. This means that there has been a dramatic increase of 43% in just 16 months. SeniorNet also estimates that computer use among the elderly has grown by 15% each year since 1990 (Adler, 1996).
However, at this time senior citizens make up only 1% of all Internet users. But perhaps the most surprising statistic is that senior citizens, on average use the computer more hours per week than any other group. Seniors average 12 hours per week, compared to male adults and college students averaging 9, female adults and teenagers averaging 7 and kids under 13 averaging 5 hours per week (Odlin1996). Now many may think that is because most senior citizens are retired and have more time to give to the computer than the other groups, but the belief of technophobia in seniors needs to be taken into account also. Surveys taken among computer users between early 1994 and 1996 show that more and more seniors are learning to overcome their supposed technophobia as they take classes to become computer literate. They also show that seniors are using the Internet to start business, help the business they are in and promote themselves as modern. It seems that most seniors start using the Internet because their grandchildren are learning it and they feel left out or because their grandchildren live so far away and they wanted to be able to use email to talk with them. Whatever the reason, the elderly are getting over their fear of technology.
One of these surveys taken by SeniorNet, conducted in November 1995 found that among all adults who own home computers those between ages 55 to 75 own 30% of them and those 75 or older own 23% of all the home PCs. Education also plays a role in the number of seniors owning computers. Of those who are college graduates, 53% of them own a computer. 28% of these computer owners regularly use an online service and 65% of online users accessed the Internet in the past month (Wrixon 1997).
These figures show that seniors are not as technophobic as we all have assumed and been led to believe. The SeniorNet suspects that the reason seniors have been stigmatized as technophobic stems from an 1980 survey that indicated that corporate senior managers avoided computers, delegating clerical tasks, such as word processing, and answering email to their secretaries and lower level employees. However, it seems that once these tasks that are considered more secretarial than managerial are excluded, seniors are as likely as anyone to use the Internet.
Perhaps one of the turning points for seniors to overcome their fear of technology, was the improvement of computers. Computers are much more user-friendly now. Netscape and Microsoft browsers offer simple point and click overlays for the Internet, making it extremely easy to surf the Web. Most service providers offer simple windows, bars and pull down windows that are easy to understand and only take the click of a mouse. Also, there are new devices and software for those who have disabilities. The mouse is wonderful for people with conditions such as arthritis, who find it painful to type. There are also Braille keyboards, voice recognition, enlarged monitors and large type that help overcome some of the disabilities that seniors may experience. There has been a study done that also looks at possible health benefits that occur with Internet usage for senior citizens. This study was noted in Forbes Magazine and it showed the health benefits that occur with Internet use. Psychologist Jasmin McConatha found that after 6 months on-line, the senior groups mean score rose 14% on a cognitive ability test that was part of the Geriatric Depression Scale (Sorenson 1997).
So far, it seems that senior usage is growing at astronomical rates, compared with other age groups. The more studies done, such as the one discussed in Forbes magazine, and the more user-friendly computer and computer equipment companies make, the more likely seniors will use computers and the Internet.
Sites for Seniors
The foremost site for seniors on the Internet is SeniorNet. SeniorNet is a national nonprofit organization that provides adults 55 and older with information and instruction about computer technologies. SeniorNet was started as a research project in 1986 and was incorporated in 1990 as an independent nonprofit organization.
SeniorNet also offers computer classes designed for older adults around the United States. These classes are held at SeniorNet Learning Centers and are run by volunteers. SeniorNet also holds national conferences and conducts research on the uses of technology by older adults. Many computer related companies fund SeniorNet, proving that the senior population is expanding because computer companies would not spend money on a population that did not use their products.
There are many other sites that have tremendous value for seniors. Some of these are: The AARP site, Seniors-Site, Senior.Com, Maturity USA and The Retirement.Net. These are only a few of the hundreds of sites geared toward seniors. They offer information on how to use their computers and the Internet more effectively along with general information, links to sites about health, money and retirement, and chat rooms or message boards. Chat rooms are one of the most use d facilities by seniors on the net. Widow.net is especially geared to widows and widowers to grieve with others in similar situations. Other ch at rooms just allow seniors to get together and make new friends their own age and with some across generational lines. SeniorNet has a message board called How are You?. This board is there to allow seniors to truly put how they are feeling. In real life the expected answer would be fine, but here seniors are free to put how they actually are feeling. These messages range from health and mental complaints to just keeping the many friends they have met on the net up-to-date without having to email each individual.
The most interesting of all senior activity on the Internet, to me, are the chat rooms. I have had the privilege of meeting some very interesting and friendly people in the Yahoo chat room called Seniors. The age mix in this room averages from 50 to 75. However, I have seen younger and older and all are accepted the same...very cautiously. Until the regulars spend quite a bit of time noticing your name in the room, will they truly chat with you. The seniors that finally chatted with me explained that they have heard so many negatives about chat rooms that they are alert and careful to newcomers. However, once they do accept you, they will greet you with warmth and enthusiasm.
Most of the seniors I chatted with consider themselves to be either low or middle class. When I delved into the matter of income, the typical answer was enough. Once again I had put them on alert. However, after another couple of weeks some of them did email me and tell me their incomes. The range for annual income was $30,000-$60,000. Out of the 10 that would answer all of my questions, 6 were retired, 6 were female, and the range of how long they had been using the Internet ranged from 1 week to 3 years. The ones that were not retired yet had been accessing the Internet the longest.
The reasons they gave for using the Internet varied. However, there were some similarities. Each one of them said they use it to keep track of news and finance, health news, chat rooms and email. All of them mentioned that it was so much easier and cheaper to email family and friends than it was to call them.
All the ones that I chatted with, even those who had refused to answer any of my formal questions, did say that they thought the Internet affected their quality of life. This was a subject they felt so strongly about that they overcame their fear of me and answered. Each one felt that the Internet kept them alert, kept them from being lonely and allowed them to meet new friends to expand their social life. Many of the older seniors told me that a lot of their friends had died and that this was a chance to socialize and meet new friends. When I asked them if these new friends were approximately the same age as they are, the cautious ones who had refused to answer other questions, answered yes, while the other 10 who had answered all my questions said that most were but they were open to other age groups as well. Each told me that they had made good friends that they are anxious to speak with each day. They related to me that there were people that they could chat with, about their health and family and issues such as Social Security, that understood why there was a need to speak of these things.
The seniors also told me that they had found information about health issues that were explained to them in a way that they could understand. They knew that if they could not get an answer from their doctor, or if they had questions once they got home, they could get on-line and look it up. They feel that the Internet has given them a chance to educate themselves.
Seniors are proving everyday that they are not scared of new technology. They are learning the benefits of the Internet. However there are very few studies done on seniors and Internet usage. The effect of computer use on the health of seniors has been mentioned in certain studies. Using the Internet to get out, may help reduce loneliness and the rate of suicide among seniors (Rigdon,1994). Even in treatment of ailments such as arthritis, hours online creating an active mind may reduce the amount of pain medication needed (Noer, 1995). It has been said that seniors who regularly access the Internet will score higher on measures of health and well being than those who do not use the Internet. Seniors and Internet usage will have many more studies in the near future, I believe. The more seniors that come online, the more money computer companies will spend to target this market. This will lead to more sites for seniors and even better technology to allow even the most disabled seniors to access the Internet communities.
The more benefits for seniors health and well being that are identified to be attributed by Internet usage, the more the senior online population will grow. The changes that could possibly take place when the senior population outnumbers or closely equals other age populations could be numerous. Many seniors use their email to contact their representatives and other government officials, and believe me, they are not scared to voice their opinions. So perhaps this countrys well being will also be affected due to seniors lack of technophobia.
Adler, R.P. (1996). Older adults and computers: Report of a national
survey SeniorNet [online], Available
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Noer,M. (1995, September). Senior cybernauts. Forbes magazine. 156
Odlin. (1997). Too old for Computers [online], Available
Rigdon, J. (1994, Decmeber 8). Homebound and lonely, older people use computers to get out. The Wall Street Journal, B1.
Sorensoj, Jean. (1997) Seniors in Cyberspace. [online], Available
Wrixon, Ann. (1997). SeniorNet.com. [online], Available