According to the latest research from National Seniors Australia, older people have improved their digital skills over the past four years, but are still lagging far behind.
Over the past four years, seniors (those aged 50 and over) have improved their ‘texting, streaming, online banking and video calling’ capabilities, said National Seniors Australia CEO Professor John McCallum.
Part of this improvement was due to COVID lockdowns, which forced many people to embrace digital communication.
Mobile phone proficiency increased significantly over the period, with 63% of respondents rating their mobile capabilities as good or excellent, up from just 49% in 2018.
The chart above, which tracks the devices on which respondents took their surveys, saw big increases for people aged 60 and over.
This is due both to COVID and to the fact that smart phones are becoming more and more fashionable with oldies, Professor McCallum said.
The proportion of respondents over the age of 70 using a mobile phone doubled, with respondents able to name more than 400 apps they used – an indicator of the evolution and complexity of mobile phone use.
The results, “suggest that older Australians can and do use digital technologies when meeting their needs”, according to the report.
While tablet use was stable or declining for those under 70, older cohorts saw usage of these devices increase. For those aged 80 and over, tablet use increased from 11% to 19%.
Computer use is down, however, with desktop use down across all age cohorts.
Even people over the age of 80 who responded to the survey on a desktop computer fell from 60% to 52%, while their use of laptops fell from 26% to 22%.
Interestingly, only the youngest cohort (50-59) saw a slight increase in laptop usage. All other groups have moved to smaller screen devices.
Women left the computer world long before men. In 2018, women were significantly less likely to use computers for digital purposes than men and the trend has continued strongly in 2022.
Consequently, women use tablets and mobiles much more than men.
There has been an increase in the use of streaming services like ABC iview and Netflix as well as increases in video calling apps such as Zoom and Teams.
However, as there was no direct question on the use of these technologies, no precise figures were available.
Internet banking has grown significantly among seniors, with 79.9% of respondents using it, up from 71.8% in 2018.
There are several factors to this, including COVID lockdowns, convenience, and the move by government agencies and utilities like energy companies to increasingly offer only digital interfaces.
“Banks much prefer dealing with customers through online banking apps and services,” said Anthony McCosker, professor of media and communications at Swinburne University.
“Older people are using digital banking more because it’s the only option.”
The rise of online food shopping and delivery services has also boosted online banking among seniors, he said.
What does it mean?
Although the report appears to show a strong shift towards digital, “statistics can be a bit misleading and we really need to understand people’s digital usage in context,” Prof McCosker said.
There’s a lot of variation between different age groups, he said.
People in their 50s and 60s “are still likely to work and are therefore more exposed to technologies and changes in those technologies,” Professor McCosker said.
So when new features and apps appear, they are likely to hear about them and upgrade.
“We know that when people get further and further away from work, their confidence in digital technologies drops dramatically,” Prof McCosker said.
As a result, older people are increasingly being left behind by digital.
Surveys that show older people have the technology don’t mean they’re using it as well as they could.
“They might have a second-hand smartphone that they only use for calls and texts or it might be in the bottom drawer,” Professor McCosker said.
It’s similar with smart TVs – just because you have one doesn’t mean you’re streaming or catching up, you can use it like an old TV.
Older people are increasingly aware of a digital divide with younger people that sees both cohorts using technology differently.
While part of this difference can be explained by lack of digital skills, part is also explained by values, Prof McCallum said.
“Older people can find it very frustrating to deal with robotic voices in apps,” he said.
“They may not want to use online banking or supermarket cash machines because they feel like they’re putting people out of work.”
Seniors also fear the rise of web scams, which discourage them from using digital technology.
The government must crack down on these scams, Prof McCallum said.
The lack of financial resources also explains the low use of digital technology among some older people.
“Digital exclusion is associated with social exclusion and those who are not well-off may struggle to access devices, data and an NBN connection plan,” Professor McCosker said.