25 Aug 2022

Bridging the digital generation gap

Some members of the older generation have chosen to opt out of the whole digital universe, even if it is increasingly difficult to do so. They feel happy to adhere to their traditional choices: letters, calls on their landlines, newspapers, television. If this is a definitive decision, they will undoubtedly find nagging and proselytising about the joys of the internet exhausting and irritating.

However, an Office of National Statistics report in 2021 showed that internet use amongst people aged 75 and over had risen to 54 per cent in 2020, and this figure is likely to have risen during the pandemic lockdowns. It is becoming increasingly apparent that most of our everyday functions are linked to internet access ­ – from doctors’ consultations and appointments to online banking and bill management, we find ourselves ever more tied to new technology.

Rail companies are considering ditching paper tickets so people can only book online, car parks are increasingly making the transition to apps and digital payments, supermarkets are rolling out yet more self-service card-only check-outs, and any attempt to make contact with the local council or the utility companies will inevitably be met with a recommendation to visit the website, where the nearest you can get to personal communication is a chatbot.

This brave new digital world trumpets speed, convenience and efficiency, but many of us have discovered that, when things go wrong, it is nigh on impossible to talk to a real person or engage in any meaningful human contact.

All these problems are greatly magnified for older people who are tentatively learning to use the internet, or a smartphone, for the first time. Actions that have become intuitive for successive generations of computer and phone-users are baffling and unnatural for older digital novices. Websites and apps are frequently not designed with failing eyesight in mind, and older people often find it hard to navigate complex, multi-click user journeys or even to understand the arcane new vocabulary of the internet. The multiplicity of passwords and log-ins can cause a distressing information overload, and all too often people feel locked out before they’ve even begun.

In addition, the internet has opened us all up to ever more creative forms of fraud and deceit. Older people are vulnerable to plausible fraudsters who cold-call them and persuade them to give away vitally important security information, or to download software or click on links, giving fraudsters access to bank accounts or computers. It is scarcely surprising that some older people are extremely wary of the whole digital world.

If you spend every waking moment online and communicate almost exclusively through digital media – emails, social networking, video calling, texting and so on – you may find it difficult to accept that not everyone is the same.

Don’t wax lyrical about the convenience of online shopping and the delights of social networking to someone who has shown no interest in even owning a computer and is probably alarmed by the prospect. Respect the decision and accommodate it – make phone calls or send letters if necessary, or act as a digital proxy – and never complain.

If, however, you see tentative signs of interest, then it is worthwhile gently pointing out that the internet has its uses – sharing family photos, downloading podcasts and crosswords, emailing…

If your hints bear fruit, think carefully about useful ways in which you can initiate older people into the online universe, keep them safe, and help them to get the maximum benefit from the digital world.

Ways to Help

• Establish what the person wants to do online and make this a priority. In the first instance, it will dictate what kind of equipment they should choose.

• Help choose a broadband supplier or mobile provider and assist with the initial setting up of connections.

• Help them to choose the right equipment: a desktop pc might be the best choice, as there will be a larger, more legible screen and a more robust keyboard. However, they may be more interested in a tablet, which can be carried around the house, or used while sitting in an easy chair.

• If they are interested in a smartphone, choose a model with a large screen and magnify the display to ensure it is legible.

• Put all the most important contact numbers into the smartphone, if they have elected to use one, and demonstrate accessing them.

• Set the computer or tablet to load automatically to the most frequently used software and sites.

• Set up the browser home page with bookmarks to the user’s favourite sites. Ensure that the browser typeface is set to a legible font.

• Set the browser to remember passwords and log-ons on frequently visited sites.

• In the word processing programme load up a letter template, and display the icon prominently on the desktop.

• Go through all the privacy settings on social networking sites.

• Download an email programme and set up an email account. Save important email addresses, and install junk filters.

• Create a reference sheet that lists the most common keyboard commands – open, copy, paste, save.

• Take it slowly: maybe just concentrate in the first instance on a couple of useful websites (eg weather forecast, tv guide, news site). If the new user finds they can navigate to these sites, they will have a sense of achievement and feel ready to take more on.

• Mind your language. Words like ‘icon’, ‘browser’, ‘cursor’, ‘reboot’ are part of everyday parlance, but may very well be baffling to a new user. You might find words like ‘little picture’, ‘exploring window’, ‘pointy arrow’, ‘start up again’ are more useful. This may feel patronising, but if you have established that digital terminology is incomprehensible, creative language will be extremely useful.

• Remember that it is always easier to learn if you are actually doing, rather than observing someone else. If an older person has to sit and watch you darting around the screen with rapid clicks of your mouse or rattling out commands on a keyboard they may feel understandably daunted. Sit them down in front of the screen and let them do it from the outset, and remember an endless supply of patience is a virtue.

• If you feel that your pupil is really getting the hang of things, slowly initiate them into the internet world. In the first instance, this might simply be a matter of showing them how to use Google, and taking them to websites that chime with their interests – gardening, recipes, online chess and so on. You can also demonstrate the wonderful world of social media, podcasts and streaming.

• Once you are confident that they are in control, and only then, you can introduce them to the world of online banking and online shopping, but remember that this must be accompanied with dire warnings about fraud awareness and safety online.

• Finally, you may just have to accept that an older person is never going to become an internet wizard. You may be able to teach the basic commands, and bring your pupil to the point where they are able to send an email and navigate to a website and no further. You may still have to retain responsibility for other digital tasks, but at least you have opened up a little window into a new world.

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