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Use of technology - does age matter?

The use of technology is growing in importance in everyday life. Information and communication services are quickly becoming digitalised. Technological progress is constant, forcing people to adapt to "what is new". This undoubtedly brings challenges for a generation born outside of the digitalised world, prior to the "Internet age".

Today we speak about a "digital divide" to describe the differences in the level of technology use by younger and older people. While it is true that older adults use digital technology less than younger generations, many are eager to learn.

It is worth asking: what are the factors that influence the adoption of technology by older people? The model proposed by the Unified Theory of Acceptance and Use of Technology (UTAUT) treats adoption as dependent on individual expectations (effort required for competence? benefits of effective performance?)  as well as social influence and cost.  Although these factors are clearly relevant to the choices made by older adults, this age group has particularities that should be taken into account.

For critical gerontology, a central aspect of how ageing is experienced is ageism. This concept, introduced by Butler, refers to prejudices and stereotypes towards older people based exclusively on their age. Some of the most common ageist ideas are that all older adults are cognitively impaired, unable to learn or uninterested in learning new things. We can see and hear how some older people incorporate these ageist representations into their own thinking and behaviour.  It arguable, furthermore, that higher levels of ageism are associated with a lower quality of life, including lower health perception, higher depressive symptomatology, lower life satisfaction, and lower self-efficacy.

Given the widespread prevalence of these attitudes, it seems reasonable to suppose that ageism may have a negative influence on older adults’ decisions. This comes out when older people who are not tech-savvy are asked why they do not use technology. It is not uncommon to hear statements such as "technology is for younger people", "I am too old to use technology", or "I won’t benefit from using it. I have always lived like this". It is not uncommon to hear older people say that they do not believe they can learn how to use the Internet, or that they would be too worried about breaking such expensive devices to try and get the hang of them.

If we accept that ageism is associated with the attitudes that work against the willingness to use digital technologies (can’t do it; it’s not for me; waste of time trying), it follows that digital inclusion strategies for older adults need to take on board the basic message of critical gerontology and root out ageist misconceptions in older adults who are held back by them.

We should bear in mind how important flexibility and adaptation are to the ageing process. The use of technology reflects an older adult's ability to deploy and use the resources within their environment so as to improve their quality of life, i.e flexibility and adaptation. As a psychologist, I would say that a gerontological approach to digital inclusion should also focus on those psychosocial factors that facilitate coping with changes.

As ageist ideas are strongly embedded in society, it’s hardly surprising that we find them in the design of technological devices, applications, websites or software. All too often the technology industry thinks of older adults as impaired and believe that their only concern is to avoid deterioration without considering that there are also needs and motivations for entertainment, information, or culture. We can be fairly confident also that the 60+ age group is not always included in the evaluation of product usability. The aim should be to develop universally accessible products, allowing their use by people of all ages. It is necessary to ensure "no one is left behind" to achieve sustainable development, as highlighted in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development of the United Nations. This must include equal access to technology for all ages.

My own work in this area suggests that the evidence on the impact of technology use on well-being is biased. The studies are predominantly focused on the young population, as they are the ones who use technology the most. However, these results are not always applicable to older people, as they have particular characteristics and motivations for technology use that may differ from those of the younger generation.

It should be clear, however, that the rapid digitalisation of services and products requires access to training and digital inclusion programmes for older adults. And this means looking at  the motivations, learning strategies, and life histories of those involved.

The current COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of access to technology. It has given us the ability to communicate during quarantines and with those who have been hospitalised. It has helped us to stay active and access entertainment, education, culture, and work. In these circumstances, many older adults have had to learn to use technology out of necessity. There are, however, many who are still outside the digital world, and we have a great challenge to include them.

Of course, and it should go without saying, everyone has the right to decide whether or not to use technology. However, this decision must be well-informed, taking into consideration the benefits and disadvantages of its use, without the influence of ageist ideas.  Such ideas stand in the way of the dissemination of a potentially beneficial socialpractice. Their persistence makes it that much harder to bridge the digital divide.

So yes, age does matter when it comes to the use of technology. But we should resist the idea that the real obstacle here has to do with the ability of older adults to learn how to use it. Our ideas about the limitations on learning new skills in later life remain a major part of the problem, and for this we must take responsibility.

About the Author 

Javiera Rosell is a visiting sudent at the Oxford Institute of Population Ageing. She is currently a Ph.D. candidate in Psychology at the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile (PUC), Professor in Psychology and Academic Coordinator at the Senior Citizen Programme PUC. 


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