With an ever-ageing population, Dr Jyoti Choudrie, Dr Susan Grey, and Dr Nicholas Tsitsianis from the University of Hertfordshire Business School conducted a survey to find out why people over 50 use the internet, and how we can promote digital inclusion.

According to a report by Ofcom in 2008 ‘Just over four in ten over 65s had a PC or laptop in Q1, compared to the UK average of 72 per cent, while 37 per cent had internet access at home against an all-adult average of 67 per cent. The difference was even more apparent with broadband, where those aged over 65 were less than half as likely to have a home connection (27 per cent compared to the UK average of 58 per cent).

For all of these services the figures became even more pronounced when looking at the over 75 age group. Almost all of those aged 75 or older had a landline at home and just over half (51 per cent) said that they personally used a mobile phone, while seven in ten said that they had digital TV. Over a quarter (28 per cent) had a PC or laptop but only 22 per cent had home internet access and this fell to 15 per cent with a broadband connection.’

To understand and confirm these findings, we commissioned research to establish the technological or non-technological factors that influence senior citizens’ online interactions and thereby their digital inclusion.

Although measures are being taken by governments to offer online products and services, this is also leading to a digital divide that not only extends to the provision of computers and the appropriate infrastructure, but is also linked to ideas of social inclusion and exclusion.

Previously, in UK, the digital divide was considered to be an important issue, but was not undertaken on a government and policy level to the same extent as other countries, for example, South Korea. Instead, initiatives at a more local level occurred and led to a narrowing of the digital divide gap.

However, this has changed and a key principle of the UK e-government initiative is to socially include all citizens into the modernisation process. This includes members of society who are poor, disabled and unemployed; ethnic minority groups; young, old and the educationally and culturally deprived (Crown, 2004; Hicken, 2004).

To encourage e-services adoption amongst citizens, the UK government has pioneered projects using UK online centres, Learn Direct and wired up communities, as well as valuable local initiatives. Local initiatives include, People’s Network, which was a scheme offered by the local governments using lottery provided funds, in public libraries. This scheme offered access to the internet and computers to the citizens. Additionally, the government has created Directgov (www.direct.gov.uk), an online portal that allows citizens to access services offered by government from a centralised location.

Research results

We commissioned an online survey to obtain the findings to this research. From this initiative, responses of approximately 650 were obtained. In this broad sample, 123 of the 650 respondents were 50 years and above, an age group often referred to as silver surfers.

Faster access appeared to be a decisive factor encouraging people aged 50 and above to connect to the internet at home via broadband. Convenience, such as always-on or unmetered access was also quite important. Given the income of the occupational distribution, it is assumed that this particular group of people already had a landline; hence, the offer of a free landline offered by the broadband providers is not a vital factor.

Given the occupational distribution of this particular age group, it is not surprising that research activities were foremost when considering the factors that lead to the adoption of broadband. Obviously, the latter factor is closely correlated to work-related aspects, which comes second. This particular age group appears to take advantage of the online government services but does not seem to use broadband extensively for home business.

One explanation might be that not too many people work from home. Finally, communication was a very important social factor. Communication and certain technical aspects appeared to be an essential combination that appealed to people aged 50 and above. This confirmed by an email exchange with one of the female participants.

‘My only interest in computers was in emailing my daughter in Canada as timing telephone calls is so awkward. Most of my emails are actually to my son (in Birmingham) as we just carry on conversations. Also, since I got the scanner we can send each other articles from papers and magazines’ said one 83 year old.

With regards to research, another female participant confirmed that it is important and supported the obtained statistical results. However, the research that the participant undertook is related more to the participant’s hobbies rather than being work related.

‘I use the internet for getting tutorials on everything from lawnmowers to sheet music. A recent thing that I have also started to do is to read the reviews and story of a movie before I go to view it. I have also used it to get a diet plan set up for my husband. I am using Tesco’s diet programme and it appears to be working’, she said.

Downloading of music or films was an interesting question and one that we wanted to explore during the interviews This was confirmed by a retired, keen England-based musician female.

‘I buy sheet music from sites like play.com or just a trusted site. I will not just buy anything from anywhere. Some of these sites offer cheaper prices if we download and then I will, but only after paying’.

A 73 year old man who uses the internet for online banking purposes or communication purposes was also asked this question.

‘I would not know where to begin. My children will get what I want in terms of music. I do not want to get any viruses and also get anything that I do not really want. The internet is alright for finding good natural medicines, online banking or email. I do not want to go any far than that. The internet is not always a good place’. This person wasn't alone in thinking this as the statement was echoed by an 80 year old woman during her interview.

From this initial small sample study we found that there is a certain amount of digital inclusion amongst people aged over 50. In this case those who are educated and middle to high-income levels individuals. However, amongst these users there are some who are using broadband, although they are paying customers but with little take-up. Therefore, the digital divide remains a challenging, but nonetheless important issue. Some initial recommendations based on the current context are offered.

There are ways to entice users to overcome the so-called digital divide. This led us to categorise our findings into technical and non-technical factors.

From interviews with Citizens Online, technical factors were not of much importance when first introducing and familiarising silver surfer users to internet and broadband. However, from the online survey, this research found that if users have an interest in technology then technical factors, such as speed and accessibility can be matters of consideration and as a starting point, the types of and speed of broadband can be considered.

For an organisation considering implementing technology, such a finding is particularly useful as it identifies that providing too much technical detail to a silver surfer at the outset is a risky proposition, which could lead to very few future customers.

In non-technical factors, it was revealed that these are fundamental and clearly need to be taken into consideration when encouraging silver surfers to become online interactive. However, again, a factor that is most important is that of interest and this is something that not only our research has found but can be confirmed from previous research. The interest of silver surfers is generic and involves researching general information. This was followed by more specific work-related activities, household activities as well as children’s homework as determinant factors.

A factor that was cited as very important is communication. Retired silver surfers considered this to be a crucial factor. Factors that are not of significant influence for silver surfers were viewed to be entertainment-related downloading of music or films, the influence of peers (a close circle of friends and family), advertising and the availability and quality of service.

We would also like to state that although our findings are essentially based on an initial small scale sample and selected cases, they have demonstrated consistency with previous research and with findings from prior official published archival documents.

For instance, it was identified by this research and also confirmed by the Office of National Statistics (UK) that a large number of educated, middle to high annual income-level silver surfers appear to subscribe to broadband. More broadly, the multi-faceted nature of this non-homogenous group and the non-deterministic nature of the technology itself have been borne out.