Is the digital divide between young and elderly people increasing?

Using the concept of technological generations we look at formal and informal learning of young and elderly people in the German context. We use survey material and field impressions we gained in various technology related studies.

We frequently heard in interviews with the elderly that wanted to avoid being a stupid absolute beginner; this concern discourages them from giving it a try. We rather refer to bits and pieces of studies on the elderly and the Internet.

Pure learning by doing helps, but even if they manage to access digital information they need an intellectual effort to translate it into personal meaningful knowledge. For the young, the use of the Internet has individual and collective significance, the latter in the sense of a cultural background for communities, collective styles and values offering the possibilities to distinguish from others. At the same time the use of the Internet allows some to participate in a technology orientated “modern” lifestyle, dominated by gadgets and strong normative rules of what is “in” and what is “out.” This strong technological lifestyle group, though, as it is demonstrated in the Deutsche Shell youth study, represents only a minority of well-educated male high school students [19]. Even among the young there is a minority which, after a certain period of enthusiasm, withdraw from computers and the Internet.

Survey data was either used from the “cyberatlas” (former “NUA”) and other information services (like “nrw-media”) or was found online at special statistical data sources in Germany, provided by Social Science Institutions (ZUMA Mannheim, Zentralarchiv Köln, Deutsches Zentrum für Altersforschung Berlin). Our own research on specific technologists and Internet user groups (Paul, 1989; Konrad and Paul, 1999; Stegbauer, 2001) and current research with elderly employees and dwellers of a housing company provides a background for some of our assumptions. Technological optimists would argue that growing user figures among the elderly Internet-user group seem to indicate that the non-user problem will sooner or later disappear.

Most sites meet the needs of experienced young male users, whereas the need and interest of elderly women, the majority of the senior potential, are not targeted. Generally, for the elderly the Internet has a different collective significance than in other generations. In this article we present limits to the individual (motivational) approach, holding that access is a structural problem (e.g., the integration of the work and non-work spheres), as, for example, expressed in social network approaches (Stegbauer, 2001). The work sphere requires computer literacy and gives a magnitude of Internet use-reasons.

Access Options

On the one hand, these barriers can be removed via peers of younger informal or professional supporters. On the other hand having the means and training to access the Internet might become more important, presuming that the development of public (like e-government) and other Internet-based services increases rapidly.

Non-users are regarded as obstacles to innovation and progress. In this perspective the elderly are the most difficult group due to their low adoption pace which required specific pedagogical efforts to motivate each individual. In group 60+ the proportion of Internet users is smaller than in other age groups. Elderly men are more likely to use the Internet than women. The rate of elderly users will gradually grow in Germany [31] but it will never reach the rates of younger users.

  • Elderly men are more likely to use the Internet than women.
  • The rate of elderly users will gradually grow in Germany [31] but it will never reach the rates of younger users.
  • As a strong contrast group, we take young people, a group with a very high Internet penetration.
  • We presume that socio-structural arguments help to answer this question and introduce a specific concept of “technological generations” as an explanatory variable.

The so-called digital divide or knowledge gap between current younger and older generations is not very likely to be closed in the near future. Nevertheless the gap will become smaller over time, because the rate of elderly Internet users is growing. We expect that growth will in turn create more growth. If the Internet becomes more widely diffused among the elderly, there will be more opportunities for mutual support.

Having access to information is not the problem but rather its interpretation and its reframing in a personal and social context. Too often the current debate equates information for knowledge.

You need a device, a problem and someone who can help you to solve the problem. This is the big advantage of the young generation, who are socialised into this muddling through approach. Older individuals essentially have to unlearn some routines in order to deal with technology. However they have considerable latecomer advantages [23].

Generally young heavy users have more public and scientific attention than “light” or casual users or non-users. There are at least three types of “heavy” Internet users among the population. The first group represents Internet users who perform their online activities nearly exclusively at work, often mixing corporate and private interests. A second group uses the Internet equally at work and home. We might describe these individuals as young professionals, for whom technology use is permanently part of their lifestyle.

B. Östlund, 2003. “Social science research on technology and the elderly – Does it exist?” at www.certec.lth.se/britt.ostlund/SocialScience.pdf, accessed 25 September 2005. The use of the Internet by the elderly may not reach the levels noted for younger audiences. This is a result that many popular Internet applications are not aimed at the elderly and their interests [32].

gerd munker

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