By Elena Garcia Araujo, Lucinda Garbutt-Young and Max Moreland
Australians aged over 65 have experienced a digital divide greater than any other age group for over a decade, impacting their mental health and exacerbated by recent lockdowns, experts say.
While community and government solutions exist, current data shows the situation is not improving and the pandemic has worsened the debilitating experience of digital isolation.
Over the past eight years, the Digital Inclusion Index has recorded rising accessibility and skill among those 65 plus. However, senior Australians are still proportionally disadvantaged and the difference in their level of digital inclusion has remained unchanged.
“[Older people who aren’t digitally included] may not have that same level of connection and may be less autonomous,” said researcher Dr Carolyn Wilson-Nash, from Scotland’s University of Stirling.
Dr Wilson-Nash, who specialises in consumer adoption of technology, added: “If they need other people to do things for them, that is going to cause feelings of loneliness and a reduced sense of belonging.”
Monash University sociologist of technology and ageing Dr Barbara Barbosa-Neves said digital isolation is sometimes a direct consequence of societal attitudes towards ageing.
“When we think about ageing… we associate so many negative things… ‘I’m old, I’m a burden, I’m alone, I don’t contribute to society, I don’t know how to use technology’,” she said.
Dr Xavier Symons is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Plunkett Centre for Ethics in Darlinghurst, Sydney, and an expert in end of life bioethics called the phenomena a ‘social death’.
“There’s this concept of social death… in which the elderly and particularly those with dementia experience a form of social death, whereby they’re treated as if they are in the twilight zone between life and death,” he told Central News.
In the last budget, the Federal government allocated $28.3 million to the Be Connected program, an initiative to improve the digital inclusion of senior Australians through online resources, classes at public libraries and tutoring group grants. While experts and stakeholders agree the funding is an adequate amount, many question if the services it funds are effective.
The government thinks they’re doing a marvellous job. But you might have eight to 12 in a class… that’s no good for seniors… they need information delivered repeatedly, one on one.
Daphne Scott, the secretary of Kensington Computer Pals, has been running independently under the Australian Seniors Computer Club Association (ASCCA) for over 25 years.
Their classes are tailored to individual student needs and run in small groups. Mrs Scott believes the programs under Be Connected do not offer appropriate student support.
“The government thinks they’re doing a marvellous job,” she said. “But you might have eight to 12 in a class… that’s no good for seniors… they need information delivered repeatedly, one on one.
“Every smartphone is different, you have to show [students] on their phone. Don’t just give them instructions.”
Dr Wilson-Nash thinks governments need to address affordability issues in addition to enacting programs.
“A lot of people can’t afford technology,” she said. “I think having packages where people without means could apply for Wi-Fi within their home [would be useful].
“We need to also subsidise technology, I think that is really important.”
Be Connected grants were offered to local ASCCA groups to purchase devices throughout the most recent lockdown, but community members found these grants impractical.
“They [the government, through Be Connected] offered a lot to us. It was a significant amount of money. However, they didn’t consider how we would get these devices during lockdown… They hadn’t thought about who would own them, either,” said Epping Computer Pals coordinator Maureen McDonald.
Dr Wilson Nash said governments alone can’t resolve this issue.
“The companies providing these technologies need to take ownership as well,” she said. “If they’re selling a device it needs to be accessible, that’s not the case at the moment.”
In May this year, the Australian Communications and Media Authority found 80 per cent of older Australians find technology challenging to understand.
Mrs Scott has witnessed these difficulties in her students. She explained many feel embarrassed by their lack of knowledge.
“Unfortunately, some of the [students] feel inferior. They say things like, ‘I’m stupid’. It’s not that they’re stupid; technology is a completely different language,” she said.
“Technology developers generally only [conduct] tests on a very select group of people, their target consumer group which is the younger consumers.”
Dr Barbosa-Neves believes alongside technological design and government programs, we need to reform public perception of seniors and technology and take a more grassroots community-based approach to bridge the digital divide.
We need a more intergenerational approach to technology and to actually think about technology in an inclusive way across generations.
“We have to be careful not to infantilise [seniors] in any way,” she said.
“I think we need also a more intergenerational approach to technology and to actually think about technology in an inclusive way across generations, I think that requires community involvement.
“We have to be thinking about personhood, respect, autonomy and empowerment. That’s important to have in mind, which is usually not the mission. We tend to focus on the technology, but the issue here is not just technology. It’s the people, it’s the society, it’s the social relationships that we have in place.”
“I experience it quite frequently,” said Manly Computer Pals President, Judy Elias.
“You go into JB-HI-FI and they speak to you slowly… they’re taken aback when I might know a little bit more than they do.”
Volunteers who understand seniors are key to breaking this stereotype.
Ms Elias’ student, Jan McCoy, is a testament to the effectiveness of volunteer programs that target individual needs. Through her lessons at Manly Computer Pals, she gained the opportunities to become connected online.
“It is so lovely to be able to catch up [with my friends],” she said. “Zoom has just been absolutely unbelievable. Learning that skill alone, and being comfortable getting online and having a chat with people is brand new to me and my group.
“The uplifting of people’s mental health during that time [of lockdown]… was brilliant. It’s better than an email or a phone call.”
Main image by Elena Garcia Araujo