This blog was contributed by Geraldine Bedell, Editor of Gransnet, the social networking site for grandparents.
It’s Monday morning and on the technology floor of Peter Jones department store in London, 10 people in their seventies and eighties are poring over tablets, examining smartphones and asking questions about digital cameras.
They’re here because it’s the opening day of Itea and Biscuits, Age UK’s week-long focus on digital inclusion, and the store has made a number of its staff available to talk to members of Kensington and Chelsea Age UK. Some of the older people who’ve turned up to find out about technology are complete novices; others have arcane questions about apps versus browsers or the way Chrome stores their passwords. This small group demonstrates, once again, that it’s unwise to make assumptions about anything, including internet use, on the basis of age.
A couple of mornings later, I found myself at the launch of a report on social exclusion from the International Longevity Centre (ILC), backed by Age UK. The report highlighted rising levels of deprivation among people aged 50 to 59 – which is worrying for those who care about the whole population being online, because we already know that social exclusion is very closely related to digital exclusion. Those who aren’t using the internet are poorer, live in worse housing and are more isolated. And it’s a vicious circle: digital exclusion further cuts people off from relationships, as well as from information and services.
Not being online is likely to have a negative impact on quality of life, probably even more so in the years to come. Some of the ‘it’s-not-for-me’ resistance that can be found among older people needs unpicking (when people say they aren’t interested, are they really worried about internet fraud, or the cost of equipment and broadband, or looking foolish, or perhaps a proud sense of having always managed perfectly well without all this stuff?)
Some of the resistance is undoubtedly practical and reasonable: those of us who work in offices tend to underestimate the levels of ongoing support we get. You can’t teach people to switch on a computer and send email then leave them alone and expect they’re going to be up with the latest thing a few weeks later.
But the other thing we have to remember is that there’s probably little value in telling people that the internet is good for them. In a sense, this is where the government’s Digital by Default strategy is flawed: people feel a bit bullied, they think it’s about saving money (which it is) and why should they put themselves out for that?
We would be better off thinking about why young people go on the internet. It isn’t primarily because the health service needs them to, or even for price comparisons, cheap deals and easy banking. It’s because the internet offers the things they love: music, relationships, the chance to make each other laugh. We would say this, of course, but at Gransnet we think we’re an attractor for older people online: we offer something that gives older people real pleasure. But with the internet currently designed primarily by 23 year-olds for 23 year-olds, there still isn’t enough really compelling content for older people, designed by the over-50s for the over-50s.
The internet is a young medium in all senses – fast, scattergun – and it’s harder for older people to find things that are a really rewarding use of their time. But that will change, and to be cut off from everything that is going to be on offer online in the next few years is to hobble yourself, to choose to exclude yourself at least in part from cultural and civic activities, local amenities, financial products and consumer goods and, most importantly of all, from an important strand of social relationships. Fortunately, the situation is not hopeless: as the members of Kensington and Chelsea Age UK showed, age in itself is no barrier to being interested and knowledgeable about the internet.