In Switzerland a majority of those over 65 years old do not use the internet, with many citing fears over technology use and the effort needed to learn about the web.
But, as a study shows, one third of these “offliners” might be encouraged to use the net if they had a bit of help. Experts say family support and more training are needed.
The research, which was presented in Zurich on Tuesday, was carried out by Zurich University’s Centre for Gerontology on behalf of the old people’s organisation Pro Senectute.
It concluded that only 38 per cent of people aged over 65 were online. This compares to more than 90 per cent of 14-19 years olds and almost 80 per cent of the 40-49 age group.
As people aged, they were less likely to use the web: 58 per cent of 65-69 year olds did so, but by 70-74 this figure had halved. Among the over 85s, only eight per cent were regularly online.
Silver surfers have particular needs. “Especially of interest to older users are email contacts, health, administration and travel information,” Hans Rudolf Schelling, the head of Centre for Gerontology, told swissinfo.ch.
Downloading music and playing games online, as beloved by the younger generation, was not so popular.
Reluctance to surf
But, asked the study, why in this day and age of increasing internet use are there still 62 per cent of over 65s who are not online?
The researchers, who polled 1,105 people across the country on their internet use, noted some differences between on- and offliners – onliners tended to have a higher educational background for example, said Schelling.
But there were also other reasons.“There is a fear of technical issues and people say that the time needed to learn about the internet is too much,” Schelling said.
Web security was cited as a fear by both on-and offliners, although Schelling pointed out that the onliners had not let this discourage them from using the web.
Encouraging more users
A third of non-users nevertheless said they would be interested in using the web, but had been put off or did not have the knowledge. This is a situation that Pro Senectute is keen to change.
“We think it’s very important to help those who have until now not had the chance to access the web,” said Martin Odermatt, the organisation’s head of finance and logistics.
Inter-generational communication is just one potential benefit.
“These days people travel around and if we manage to keep old people online then we can encourage communication within the family,” Odermatt told swissinfo.ch.
This is already appreciated by 85-year-old Lotti Reist, a retired teacher form Bern, who uses Skype on her computer to talk to her son who lives in Africa. She doesn’t use email because of her bad eyesight.
"I use Skype every day to stay connected with my son in Africa, my family in Switzerland and friends in Australia. It's opened up the world and brought it nearer,” she explained.
“It's such an exciting moment when I hear the Skype bell ringing. To see and hear people speaking from a different country with a different climate and time. Amazing!"
Reist’s son made the screen more user friendly so she could see it better.
Family support, says Odermatt, is very important, especially as the study revealed that older people preferred to learn about the web from family and friends and that they were more likely to use the internet if someone in their close social circle did so.
Pro Senectute – which already has an IT for seniors programme - wants to emphasise the benefits of the web. Here, special introduction courses at old people’s clubs or in nursing homes could be useful.
“We have 250,000 older people in Switzerland who would like to surf on the internet and it’s all about helping these people do that,” Odermatt said.
Isobel Leybold-Johnson in Zurich, swissinfo.ch
“Switzerland compares fairly well with other European countries,” Schelling said.
It has one of the highest numbers of older surfers online, at a percentage approaching that of the world leaders in Scandinavia. The numbers are lower in southern Europe.
He speculates that this could be explained by culture and by economic resources.
Nevertheless the number of over 65s on the internet is still low, especially among the older age groups, he said.
Research published by the Federal Statistics Office last year showed that people aged at least 64 made up 5.8% of the Swiss population in 1900 and 16.4% in 2007.
The proportion of people aged 80 or older climbed from 0.5% in 1900 to 4.7% in 2007.
In contrast, the proportion of under-20s fell from 40.7% to 21.5% in the corresponding time frame.