Richard Devitt, an 86-year-old retired restauranteur living in Massachusetts, doesn’t have an email account and still uses a flip phone. “I honestly don’t need or want them,” he said about smartphones and social media. The fact that attending church services, birthday parties, and even medical appointments now requires logging in online hasn’t changed his mind.
There’s a widespread idea that seniors are technologically illiterate or dislike devices, but that’s not necessarily the case. Instead, older adults adopt tech they find useful and resist tech they don’t. In normal times, that can be problematic when it comes to filing online forms or accessing test results. But in the pandemic, when internet connectivity drives social engagement and medical care, this misconception could be deadly. Roughly 27 percent of Americans over 65 are not online, and understanding why is key to changing that. If companies designed devices and software with value for seniors, not as many older people would find themselves on the other side of the digital divide. During a pandemic, that could save lives.
According to the Pew Research Center, 73 percent of people over 65 in the U.S. use the internet, up from 14 percent in 2000. The older the person, the less likely she is to embrace the internet, social media, or smartphones, but those who have adopted these technologies use them a lot and learn new skills to do so. Seniors are the fastest growing online demographic, though some remain holdouts. In many of those cases, the real barrier to entry isn’t technological—it’s personal.
Seniors learn new tech skills when that tech has value to them. Devitt told me he was confident he could master Facebook or a smartphone if he wanted to. “Anyone can figure it out,” he said, “but I don’t want to spend the time to do that.” The saddest part about the restaurant business, Devitt said, was watching people come in to celebrate events and “as soon as they sat down, their phones came out.” He sees as many older adults as younger ones glued to their phones, and he doesn’t want to be one of them. (He particularly doesn’t want the pressure to reply to someone instantly, multiple times a day.) The pandemic doesn’t make social media appealing, either. Instead, Devitt and his wife continue to have weekly phone calls with family.
Lawrence Stephens, a 91-year-old in Mississippi, has a passive relationship with Facebook. He accesses it to see what’s going on, particularly when his granddaughter is traveling, but he “wouldn’t dare” post anything. Stephens grasps what many social media users of all ages do not: “Once you get on, you forget you’re talking to millions of other people. Anybody can tune in.” Many older adults have privacy concerns, and with good reason. Scammers use a variety of technologies to target older adults to such an extent that the FBI posts warnings on its website. In 2019, the Senate Committee on Aging convened hearings on fraud against veterans and a Social Security scam that cost seniors $38 million that year.
While people of all ages worry about data privacy, those concerns prevent some seniors, such as Stephens, from using social media. “I treasure my privacy and think about it quite a bit,” said Stephens, recounting how he ordered masks online from Walmart recently and was shocked to learn the company had retained all of his personal information from when he bought a chisel there three years earlier. “They’ll sell this information so everyone knows how big of a sucker I am,” Stephens said.
Bran Knowles, a researcher who focuses on the intersection between data systems and social responsibility, studies how older adults use technology and why they do or don’t use certain devices or platforms. Her findings that tech use is about choice reflects Devitt and Stephens’ experiences. Often, the barrier is “a misalignment of values and products,” said Knowles—tech companies “don’t see [older people] as valid stakeholders.” That’s evident in how they fail to consider seniors’ needs, even when manufacturing products like the Jitterbug, a phone with extra-big buttons intended for older users. However, button size doesn’t dictate seniors’ decisions about tech use, and such presumptions highlight Silicon Valley’s bias toward youth, both in terms of shareholders and user markets. The marketing of Jitterbug seems geared toward the children or caretakers of seniors, rather than toward seniors themselves, and user reviews similarly tend to be from those children and caretakers. The people who drive tech development “can’t imagine what it’s like to be 80,” said Knowles. Misconceptions get baked into the design, build, and marketing of devices supposedly made for seniors. When older adults don’t adopt them, it’s easy to write them off as categorically resistant to technology.
The assumption that seniors are “alienated” by technology—a verb Knowles avoids because of its implied passivity—ignores the essence of her research: that older adults’ resistance to technology is a value-based choice. Thus, many seniors resist some technologies and embrace others. Stephens uses his computer and TurboTax software to trade on the stock market and to file taxes. Apple is “one of his favorite companies,” and he bought himself an iPhone a year ago. But despite how handy the phone can be, “it’s like a tether,” so he rarely uses it. “When you want to do some deep thinking and not be interrupted, smartphones are no good,” said Stephens.
Some seniors, such as 77-year-old Illinois resident Margaret Cullen, have adopted new technologies to stay socially connected. Cullen has played poker with eight other women every month since 1976. Now that they can’t meet in person, they moved their game to Zoom. “All of my senior friends are anxious to learn new things,” Cullen wrote in an email punctuated with emojis. The motivation to learn is particularly strong if you have grandchildren: “We all initially say ‘no,’ and then someone learns from their grandchild and the feeling is, ‘if she can do it so can I,’ ” Cullen wrote. “It’s amazing how fast my friends have learned!”
Even during a pandemic, many older adults remain unmotivated to cross the digital divide. The COVID-19 crisis could perpetuate the dangerous misconception that seniors who resist technology either can’t or don’t want to be reached. Neither is true, and that supposition could perpetuate the deadly consequences of ageism by discouraging people and corporations from investing in new or different initiatives. Knowles sees the heartlessness around the lack of support for seniors and the explicit suggestion that they’re expendable as “partly a function of having digitized the world without designing it in a way that invites older adults to join.” Ageism can turn into victim blaming when organizations dismiss the needs of older adults. If someone can’t fill in an online form to get government assistance in the current crisis or can’t figure out how to get Zoom to work for a telehealth appointment, Knowles fears this response: “Well, you should’ve learned how to use the internet—it’s not our problem.”
At the same time, Knowles worries that older adults sometimes believe they have no choice but to adopt technology, and that the pandemic could exacerbate that belief. That perceived ultimatum could amount to what Knowles calls a “moral concession to the IT industry,” or a justification of the continued exclusion of seniors from their markets. If companies continue ignoring the value-based reasons older adults resist various technologies and continue failing to accommodate such potential users, they’ll never realize they’ve been asking the wrong question all along. It’s not about “how to get older people to use the tech we have,” Knowles said. The real question is, “How do we make tech seniors actually want?”
This article was written with the support of a journalism fellowship from the Gerontological Society of America, Journalists Network on Generations, and the Commonwealth Fund.