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The generational digital divide climbs to age 80

Una persona anziana dinanzi a un computer.
It's not uncommon today for pensioners to keep in touch with their grandchildren through the Internet. Westend61 / Uwe Umstätter

Older people are more and more at home in the digital world. At the height of the coronavirus pandemic, many seniors relied on WhatsApp messaging or video calls to overcome loneliness. A recent study shows that internet use among pensioners in Switzerland has almost doubled over the past decade and allowed many to stay in touch during the pandemic.

“Digital services are very popular with the over-65s,” writes Swiss advocacy organisation for older people, Pro Senectute. “In their use of communication technologies, young retirees are managing to compete with the younger generations.” Things change at a later stage in life: the real digital divide now starts at around age 80.

According to the findings of the Digital Senior 2020External link study, commissioned by Pro Senectute and carried out by Center of Gerontology at the University of Zurich, 74% of people aged 65 and above use the internet. This represents a real jump from 38% in 2009, when the first survey was carried out. The study also shows that since the second survey, held in 2014, mobile web use (via smartphones or tablets) in this age group has surged from 31% to 68%.

In addition to sending emails and searching for information on the web (users’ first preference, the study found), older netizens make use of a wide range of other possibilities. They do their shopping online or keep in touch with family and friends via video calls, options that have proved vital during the semi-lockdown.

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“The coronavirus pandemic has demonstrated the importance of digital communication channels for taking part in social life. Many families have started using applications such as FaceTime, Zoom or WhatsApp with their grandparents, in order to maintain visual contact despite physical distance,” says Tatjana Kistler, spokeswoman for Pro Senectute.

Kistler stresses the importance of maintaining social contacts, especially for adults with reduced mobility, and their positive impact on physical and psychological well-being.

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With this in mind, Pro Senectute and various other organizations offer courses to enable seniors to explore communication technologies. For instance, UNITRE – the only Italian-speaking university outside Italy – is present in eight towns in German-speaking Switzerland. It includes computer courses in its programmes.

“We should not forget that there are still 400,000 older people in Switzerland who do not use the internet. It is up to us to support them with advice and services, so that they can take part in an increasingly digitalised society and are not left out,” says Kistler.

Preventing exclusion

In the 2019 survey, 26% of respondents said that they did not use the internet. Some 5% were living in retirement homes.

Logically, the older people get, the less they use new communication technologies. However, there are netizens over the age of 80 in Switzerland, as in other countries. SWI spoke with a fervent promoter of new technologies – a Japanese woman who, at 82, has developed a smartphone app that encourages the use of new technologies to help older people maintain their independence.

The latest Pro Senectute survey also looked at the digitalised services that are now ubiquitous in daily life: from self-service supermarket checkouts to wristband activity monitors to the online payment of taxes and other public services.

The researchers found that the types of internet use were largely unchanged since the previous survey: searching for information and sending and receiving emails (100% in both cases) remained at the top, followed by chats, phone calls, browsing and checking timetables and travel information.

Between 50% and 65% of those questioned search for health information, read newspapers and do banking online. Fewer than 50% use apps for administrative tasks, online shopping or live streaming.

In addition to the quantitative study on the use (or not) of the internet among people aged 65 and over, Digital Senior 2020 gathered opinions on various technology-related issues.

For instance, 57% of respondents thought that “technological progress should continue” and that they “could no longer imagine their lives without technology.” However, four in ten respondents said they had difficulty in coping with technology, while 37% agreed with the statement that “increasing digitalisation brings more advantages than disadvantages for society.”

Interestingly, 61% of those surveyed rejected the idea of using robots to help care for the elderly.

The study also revealed that education and income levels were higher among web users. Respondents not using the internet said they found it too complicated to use (77%), were concerned about security issues (74%), or could not be bothered to learn (65%).

Translated from French by Julia Bassam

Traduzione dallo spagnolo: Sonia Fenazzi

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR

SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR