Fear of ‘New’ Creates Digital Divide for Older Users

Posted October 3rd, 2014 at 2:00 pm (UTC-5)

A Nov. 2012 file photo shows an instructor helping a student learn more about using email at the Senior Planet Exploration Center, the first of its kind for free technology education for older adults, NY. (OATS/Michael Kamber)

A Nov. 2012 file photo shows an instructor helping a student learn more about using email at the Senior Planet Exploration Center, the first of its kind for free technology education for older adults, NY. (OATS/Michael Kamber)

Technological innovation is reshaping the world and putting new tools in the hands of people everywhere. But technology for some older demographics is a source of fear and insecurity – a mirror of a generational divide in digital awareness.

“There is a lot of fear around learning a new technology,” says Kimberly Brennsteiner, Director of Programs at Older Adults Technology Services (OATS), a New York-based non-profit that trains older adults over 60 in new technologies.

“We’ve found that people have not always reached their full potential or have a lot of aversion to do things that the rest of us who are online would do regularly because of this fear,” she said. “And it is a very paralyzing fear that we think holds them back from being able to really use the Internet to their full advantage.”

The digital world “can be very difficult,” says Brennsteiner, particularly with all the hype about malware and viruses – words that are sometimes left undefined or, when defined, tend to be confusing.

While the center’s students have varying degrees of digital literacy, Brennsteiner says it is often the case that no one has educated them about malware, viruses and phishing and how to deal with those threats.

“A lot of adults report to us that they don’t like going to get advice because people try to sell them things,” she said. “And then they don’t know if they need that or not. And why … pay for anti-virus software when you can get free anti-virus software? But which is free and which is safe? And how safe is it? And all of those questions – there’s not a lot of places for people to answer those questions that are trustworthy.”

Instructors and students interact at the Senior Planet Exploration Center in New York, the first of its kind for free technology education for older adults. (OATS/Evan Joseph Images)

Instructors and students interact at the Senior Planet Exploration Center in New York. (OATS/Evan Joseph Images)

OATS helps its students make sense of the digital world and teaches them how to keep themselves safe online and create strong passwords they can remember and to change them “as often as they change their toothbrush, every three months.”

She says older adults fear that they will forget their password and will not be able to access the information they need.

“That’s one of the reasons they don’t change it,” she explained. “So one of the ways we’ve convinced people to change their passwords is to create inspirational passwords that are not forgettable.”

OATS’ courses, which last for 10 weeks and go over 20 sessions, teach students that they can control  the information they share online and how to trust their judgement to detect suspicious emails and  online scams.

“It is a very long conversation and a long process to get people up and online and comfortable with technology,” said Brennsteiner.

A lot of security issues have to do with old or dysfunctional hardware and bad computer habits. “If something is not broken,’ says Brennsteiner, “they are not going to throw it away … and … if the screen still turns on, it’s hard to tell if something is broken or not.”

People who are not in the workforce typically have “fewer opportunities to participate in digital technology as it evolves,” she said. So “if somebody was not in a situation that required them to use that technology, they probably wouldn’t have. And older adults in general are later to adopt new technologies than younger people.”

“Older people tend to have a resistance to change,” says Patrick Morganelli, Senior Vice President of Technology for Enigma Software, a developer of PC security software that recently did a survey that shows computer users age 50-60 are more prone to malware than younger users.

“We’ve assisted older people who, after repeatedly getting their computer infected, continue to maintain bad computer habits …  such as weak passwords and inadvertently clicking on links from spam emails, social sites or suspicious sites that download malware,” said Morganelli.

He says cybercriminals tend to target inexperienced users; and the “inexperienced computer user tends to be from an older demographic because they’re less likely to be computer literate or are intimidated by the use of computers”

Despite engaging in “riskier behavior,” he says younger demographics are “light years ahead of their older counterparts when it comes to computer skills.”

He argues that “educational awareness of malware activity is key and needs to be done [on] a grand scale in order to help spread the word to all generations [young and old].”

But Laurie Orlov, an industry analyst and founder of Aging in Place Technology Watch, cautions against broad generalizations for older computer demographics, given disparities in age, education, income levels, lifestyles, abilities and a host of other variables.

And Brennsteiner agrees that these types of surveys “sometimes do justice to that and sometimes not.”

She points out, for example that a lot of people are technologically capable at that age. On the other hand, she notes that “only 59 percent of seniors 60 and up are even online at all.”

“It is a real issue,” she said. “As things progress with technology, older adults are more and more disadvantaged if they are not online.”

Aida Akl
Aida Akl is a journalist working on VOA's English Webdesk. She has written on a wide range of topics, although her more recent contributions have focused on technology. She has covered both domestic and international events since the mid-1980s as a VOA reporter and international broadcaster.

4 responses to “Fear of ‘New’ Creates Digital Divide for Older Users”

  1. I found this article very pertinent. I am 63 and although I use a computer and Ipad I often find myself insecure and forget how to do certain things and depend on a daughter or grandchild to help me out. The use of passwords for everything is inconvenient I am using this article with my students in my ESL classes.

  2. Dave says:

    Realistically, nobody remembers their passwords unless they have very few passwords to remember.

    • Aida Akl Aida Akl says:

      We all remember some of them, I guess, though presumably you have some of them written down somewhere safe. For the time being, there is no escaping passwords.

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