Older people have improved their digital skills over the past four years but still lag in some important ways, according to the latest research from National Seniors Australia.
Over the past four years, seniors (those aged 50 and above) improved their abilities in, “texting, streaming, banking online, and video calling”, said National Seniors Australia CEO Professor John McCallum.
Part of that improvement was due to the COVID lockdowns, which forced many people to embrace digital communication.
Mobile phone proficiency increased dramatically over the period, with 63 per cent of respondents rating their mobile abilities as good or excellent, compared to just 49 per cent in 2018.
The chart above, which tracked the devices on which respondents completed their surveys, saw big increases for those aged 60 and above.
That is due both to COVID and the fact that smart phones are becoming more fashionable with the older set, Professor McCallum said.
The proportion of respondents over 70 using a mobile phone doubled, with respondents able to name more than 400 apps they used – an indicator mobile phone usage evolved and become more complex.
The results, “suggested older Australians can and do use digital technologies when they meet their needs”, the report found.
While tablet usage was flat or declining for those under 70, the older cohorts saw increases in usage of these devices. For those 80 and above, the use of tablets increased from 11 per cent to 19 per cent.
Computer usage is in decline, however, with desktop computer usage down across all age cohorts.
Even those over 80 completing the survey on a desktop fell from 60 per cent to 52 per cent, while their usage of laptops fell from 26 per cent to 22 per cent.
Women left the computer world long before men. Back in 2018, women were significantly less likely to use computers for their digital purposes than men and the trend continued strongly into 2022.
Consequently, women had a far higher usage of tablets and mobiles than men.
There were increases in the use of streaming services like ABC iview and Netflix as well as rises in video calling apps such as Zoom and Teams.
However, because there was no direct question usage of those technologies no firm figures were available.
Internet banking has increased dramatically among older people, with 79.9 per cent of those surveyed using it compared with 71.8 per cent back in 2018.
There are multiple drivers for that, including COVID lockdowns, convenience, and the move by government agencies and utilities like energy companies to increasingly offer only digital interfaces.
“Banks much prefer to deal with customers through apps and online banking,” said Anthony McCosker, Professor of Media and Communication at Swinburne University.
The rise of digital shopping and food delivery services was also driving online banking among older people, he said.
What does it mean?
While the report appears to show a strong move to digital, “statistics can be a bit misleading and we really need to understand people’s digital use in context”, Professor McCosker said.
There is a lot of variation among different age groups, he said.
People in their 50’s and 60s, “are still likely to be working and so they are more exposed to technologies and changes in those technologies”, Professor McCosker said.
So when new functions and apps emerge they are likely to hear about them and upgrade.
“We know that when people get further and further away from work their confidence with digital technologies drops dramatically,” Professor McCosker said.
That results in older people being increasingly left behind digitally.
Surveys that show older people owning technology don’t mean they use it as well as they could.
“They might have a hand-me-down smart phone they just use for calls and text or it might be in the bottom drawer,” Professor McCosker said.
It is similar with smart TVs – just because you have one doesn’t mean you stream or do catchup, you might use it like an old time telly.
Older people are increasingly aware of a digital divide with the young that sees the two cohorts use tech differently.
While some of this difference can be accounted for by lack of digital skills, some is also accounted for by values, Professor McCallum said.
“Older people can find it very frustrating to deal with robotic voices in apps,” he said.
“They may not want to use online banking or self checkouts at super markets because they feel they are putting people out of jobs.”
Older people are also fearful of the rising level of scams on the web, which discourage them from using digital tech.
The government needs to crack down on such scams, Professor McCallum said.
Lack of financial resources also account for some older people’s low digital usage.
“Digital exclusion is associated with social exclusion and those who aren’t well off may find it hard to get access to devices, data and an NBN connection plan,” Professor McCosker said.
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