Seniors in Cyberspace
Trends and Issues Alert
by Susan Imel
This project has been funded at least in part with Federal funds from the U.S. Department of Education under Contract No. ED-99-CO-0013. The content of this publication does not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the U.S. Department of Education nor does mention of trade names, commercial products, or organizations imply endorsement by the U.S. Government. ERIC/ACVE publications may be freely reproduced.
Many older adults are defying the stereotype that computers are for the young and are actively engaged in using the Internet as both consumers and producers of information (Imel 1997). Approximately 15% (7.6 million) of the estimated 50.6 million U.S. citizens who browse the web are aged 50 and older (Lewis 1998), and 30% of older adults aged 55-75 own a computer (Adler 1996). These figures represent the intersection of two trends: the aging of the population in the United States with an extended period of active adulthood and the growth of the information society with unparalleled opportunities for connecting online (Furlong 1997; Timmerman 1998). This Alert highlights some of the trends and issues related to the increased use of the Internet by older adults, including some implications for adult and continuing educators. Lists of print and online resources are included.
A desire to gain access to cyberspace is one of the primary reasons older adults adopt new information technologies (Furlong 1997). Although many older adults initially log on to the Internet as a means of connecting with friends and family, they quickly learn that it is also a valuable source of information on financial, health, travel and other topics of interest to them. In addition, through discussion groups and "chat rooms," they link with individuals who share similar interests (Flynn 1996; Furlong 1997; Lewis 1998). The Internet also erases the impact of many physical disabilities (Furlong 1997; LeClaire 1997). According to Hugh O Connor, director of the AARP Research Information Center, "the Internet can stimulate independent living among the elderly . . . . help combat isolation, spur lifelong learning, create opportunities for volunteering and make it easier for retirees to earn extra income without leaving home" (Lewis 1998, pp. 1, 14).
Among older adults, both computer ownership and online participation are tied to level of education and to socioeconomic status: 50% of those over age 50 who use the Internet have college degrees and almost one-third have incomes exceeding $70,000. Older women, however, are less likely than their male counterparts to own computers and to go online (Adler 1996; Timmerman 1998).
Older adults have used a variety of methods to learn how to use the computer. Nearly 40% taught themselves, whereas just over 20% learned at work. Women are much more likely than men to have taken a class or learned from a friend. Those who consider themselves to be novice computer users are much more likely to have taken a class than those who consider themselves to be experienced. "Experienced" users tend to be those who have taught themselves or learned at work (Adler 1996). Timmerman (1998) speculates that older adults who were early adopters of computer technology and, as a result, consider themselves experienced, are likely to be self-directed, lifelong learners; thus teaching themselves is a preferred method of learning.
When combined with Internet access, learning to use computer technology can provide older adults opportunities for lifelong learning and continuing growth and development and also help offset social isolation and loneliness (Furlong 1997; Galusha ). Adult and continuing educators who wish to support older adult learners in learning to use computer technology should consider the following. Although a strong demand for computer instruction exists among older adults, facilities and equipment on which to provide training are often lacking (Galusha ; Timmerman 1998). Some providers have overcome this barrier by entering into agreements with hardware and software manufacturers who agree to contribute equipment for training purposes (Timmerman 1998). Course development is another area that must be considered. Timmerman recommends the use of peer instructors who understand how adults learn and teaching methodologies that are nonthreatening and self-paced. Finally, adult and continuing educators need to be aware of issues of access and equity. The statistics on which older adults currently access the Internet closely mirror participation statistics for adult and continuing education. Adult and continuing education programs have tended to attract the most highly educated and affluent groups in the population. Adult educators need to develop training programs that will encourage groups of older adults who are not currently accessing the Internet to become full participants in the information age (ibid.).
Adler R. P. "Older Adults and Computers: Report of a National Survey." San Francisco, CA: SeniorNet, 1996. <http://www.seniornet.org/intute/survey2.html>
A survey was conducted by SeniorNet to assess attitudes and computer usage patterns among senior computer owners and to explore the level of familiarity with and interest in computers among nonowners. Survey results reveal that more and more older adults are becoming computer users.
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York: Garland, 1997.
Finn, J., ed. "Aging and Information Technology. Special Issue."
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Flynn, M. K. "Plugged in Seniors." U.S. News and World
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Galusha, J. M. "The Use of Computer Technology by Older Adults."
Unpublished paper. Hattiesburg: University of Southern Mississippi, .
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American Association of Retired Persons http://www.aarp.org. Contains background on aging issues, reports on membership benefits, provides information about volunteer opportunities and local activities as well as links to other sites of interest to older adults.
Senior World Online http://www.seniorworld.com. This online publication is organized by geographic region, with each regional area containing stories of regional as well as national interest.
SeniorNet http://www.Seniornet.org. Includes Internet round-tables, e-mail pen pals, and information on Internet learning centers for seniors.
Seniors Online Blacksburg, VA http://civic.bev.net/seniors. In addition to full-text information related to local events, this site has sections on Internet help information sites, senior related sites on the web, and government, Internet, and financial resources for seniors.
Toledo-Lucas County Public Library Links for Older Adults http://www.toledolibrary.org/discover/adults.html. Provides links in the following areas: aging, computers, finance, genealogy, health, and travel.