National surveys like the Oxford Internet Survey and Ofcom’s annual Adults Media Use & Attitudes Report show that older people who aren’t online usually cite a lack of interest - in fact, most of them say that nothing will convince them to take the plunge.
The digital inclusion sector has tended to assume that people with this attitude don’t understand what the internet can do for them, or think it’s a more dangerous place than it really is; the logical conclusion is that, if only we can find the right approach, we can overcome these ‘motivational barriers’ and convince them to go online. We emphasise personally relevant ‘hooks’ like the ability to keep in touch with family, or find information about hobbies; we use case studies of real people whose lives have been improved by going online, we keep our language friendly and simple.
In many cases this approach works: our engagement strategies encourage thousands of older people to access support in Online Centres across the UK every year, leading to some incredible success stories. But our research shows that there are a quite a lot of older people who are not going to be persuaded to access standalone digital skills training, no matter how well-crafted our messages are. We spoke to those whose rejection of the internet was not based on misunderstanding or fear: they often understood in detail what it could do for them, and weren’t worried about its risks. Their lack of interest was reasonable, calm and informed.
Talking to them about their lives, one thing quickly became obvious: they had a lot of resources that they were able to draw on. Their family and friends, the area they lived, their house, their car, organisations they belonged to, skills they had, their health: all contributed to their ability to get what they wanted and needed from life. All of the familiar arguments about using the internet keep in touch, keep busy and entertained, or access information and services, were politely rebutted. They had these things covered, thank you, or they simply didn’t need them.
In some cases, like finding a holiday or concert tickets, they knew that the best deals were available online. But they could and did take advantage of these through proxies: family members who navigated digital interactions and transactions on their behalf. This occasional reliance certainly didn’t feel like a reason to go online themselves; as one of our participants succinctly put it, “How many times am I going to book a hotel room?” Proxy use of the internet was part of a wider interdependence and reciprocity: the network of connections that enabled them to live independent lives.
But personal circumstances can change in later life - sometimes suddenly and dramatically. Events like bereavement, retirement and worsening health can disrupt the connections that older people rely on, and turn the internet from an optional extra to a vital lifeline - even though they might not recognise this themselves. It’s these moments of change and crisis that bring older people into contact with a wide range of support services, like those provided through the Age Better in Sheffield programme. And it’s these support services which could be used to provide a new way to engage older people with digital, by making it a relevant, integrated part of the support they receive to help them get their lives on track. If, for example, you’re a volunteer helping people to get out and about, you need the skills and confidence to be able to talk to them about finding timetable information online. These limited wins can be incredibly valuable by themselves, but they also open the door to conversations about other online benefits, and broader learning journey.
But we know that, whether digital learning is standalone or embedded in other services, the right kind of support does not come cheap: it requires an open-ended time commitment, patience, tailored learning, and a focus on friendliness and encouragement as much as hard skills. High-volume, low cost-per-head programmes do not give practitioners the resources or flexibility they need to do the job properly. We need a more focused strategy, that does not look at digital behaviour in isolation, does not treat every offline older person as equally disadvantaged, and does not assume that getting them online will solve all their problems.
We hope that our research will lead to many new conversations: between those delivering digital skills and other support services to older people, between researchers and practitioners, between policymakers and those whom policy is designed to help. It’s only by changing the terms of the debate around ageing and digital that we will enable more older people to create, maintain and renew the connections - whether online or offline - that make for a happier, healthier later life.