Myths of age and digital capability

This is my section on the dual myths of ‘digital natives’ and ‘silver surfers’. It’s a pretty solid first draft, I think, although it’s a little long and will need cutting for length. I’m also short of references as I got some of the info from other people’s presentations and need to dig out the original references for those. Although frankly, I haven’t had to academically reference anything since I was at university, and the whole endeavour fills me with cold fear! Any help on that front, whether comments on this piece or advice in general, would be so gratefully received! I’ve got to use the Harvard format, which I’ve info on, but which I’ve not yet applied to this piece of work.

Anyway, as usual, please do feel free to critique and comment.

Myths of age and digital capability
There are two common assumptions about the relationship between age and technical competency that rear their heads whenever the internet is discussed. The first assumption is that young people have a natural affinity for technology and both understand and use it in ways that older people cannot. The second is that anyone over the age of 60 is not only technically incompetent but also uninterested in the internet, using it only under protest.

Both of these assumptions are flawed, yet have worked their way firmly into the public consciousness. Because they seem like ‘common sense’, these concepts are spread by policy makers, the media and technology companies alike. But if civil society associations take them at face value, they risk forming strategies and policies that are as flawed as the assumptions they are based on.

The ‘Digital Natives’
Marc Prensky, technologist and educationalist, coined the term ‘digital native’ in 2001 to refer to today’s students, born after 1980, whom he sees as radically different from both their predecessors and their teachers/professors. He characterises them as “native speakers of technology, fluent in the digital language of computers, video games, and the Internet” [1] and compares them with their elders, the ‘digital immigrants’ who may use technology, but who “still have one foot in the past.”

Prensky’s is not a lone voice, nor is his the first to characterise young people as being computer naturals — that meme has been spreading throughout society since the 1970, but has become particularly prevalent over the last ten years. It is predicated on the idea that there is a clear divide between generations, and that these new characteristics, ascribed to the young, are so new that not only are their elders incapable of developing those skills, they can’t even comprehend them.

As well as having a natural affinity for technology, ‘digital natives’ — aka the ‘net generation’ or ‘millenials’ — are also supposed to be “optimistic team-oriented achievers” and “active experiential learners, proficient in multi-tasking” [2]. Yet a review of the evidence shows the truth to be much more complex than the words of Prensky and his peers would lead one to believe. In reality, competency with technology varies, along with access and interest.

Neil Selwyn, in his paper The Digital Native — Myth and Reality, says:

“[T]here is mounting evidence that many young people’s actual uses of digital technologies remain rather more limited in scope than the digital native rhetoric would suggest. Surveys of adolescents’ technology use, for example, show a predominance of game playing, text messaging and retrieval of online content (as evidenced in the popularity of viewing content on YouTube, Bebo and MySpace).” [3]

Young people are also more passive than the digital native description would imply and “often display a limited ability to successfully use the internet and other research tools” [4]. Studies of American students found that the most common activities were word processing, emailing and accessing the internet for pleasure. Only a minority of students actively created their own content or used emerging technologies such as blogs, social networking and podcasts. And a significant proportion of them had lower levels of technical competency than would be expected of ‘digital natives’. [5]

Research shows that access to technology is strongly influenced by a number of factors, including socio-economic status, social class, gender and geography [6], as well as their school and home background and their family dynamics. And studies from Europe and North America show that rural youth, females and those whose parents have low levels of education are more likely to suffer from digital exclusion [7].

Furthermore, digital exclusion isn’t always involuntary. danah boyd’s study of teenagers on MySpace discovered “two types of non-participants: disenfranchised teens and conscientious objectors.” The former group have no internet access, have been banned by their parents, or can only access the internet through public terminals where sites like MySpace are banned. Conscientious objectors include “politically minded teens who wish to protest against Murdoch’s News Corp. (the corporate owner of MySpace)” as well as obedient teens who respect their parents’ bans, teens who feel socially alienated from their online peers, or who just think they are too cool for MySpace. [8]

The concept of the digital native is, then, an artificial construction, rather than a description of reality. Selwyn says:

“Whilst often compelling and persuasive, the overall tenor and tone of these discursive constructions of young people and technology tend towards exaggeration and inconsistency. The digital native discourse as articulated currently cannot be said to provide an especially accurate or objective account of young people and technology.”

A conclusion with which Bennett et al. agree:

“[T]hese assertions are put forward with limited empirical evidence … or supported by anecdotes and appeals to common-sense beliefs.” [9]
Harvard’s John Palfrey, co-author of the book Born Digital, explains why the term ‘digital native’ should not be used to describe a particular generation:

“Not all people born during a certain period of history […] are Digital Natives. Not everyone born today lives a life that is digital in every, or indeed any, way.”

Furthermore “Not all of the people who have the character traits of Digital Natives are young. [Some people] over a certain age […] live digital lives in as many ways, if not more, than many Digital Natives. Many of us have been here as the whole digital age has come about, and many of our colleagues have participated in making it happen in lots and lots of crucial ways.” [10]

The ‘Silver Surfer’
Similar mythology has grown up around internet users of retirement age. The common perception of the over-50s, and in particular the over-60s, is that they are technically incapable and uninterested in the internet. Indeed, the phrase ‘silver surfer’ brings to mind the idea of a white-haired old lady prodding at the computer with a single finger as if it might bite. But this image, however evocative it may be, diminishes the role that the internet plays in the lives of older people, and the influence they have on the internet itself.

Nielsen, Hitwise and OfCom all predict an increase in use of the internet by the 55+ age group, with predictions averaging at a 20% increase [11]. The 55+ age group are using the internet more frequently, with the 65+ age group also increasing useage (although their overall usage is lower than that of the younger cohort). [12]

A 2007 OfCom report shows that 16% of over-65s use the web, spending 42 hours per month on the web, compared to 37.9 hours spent by 18-24s, and only 24.9 hours spent by 12-17 year olds [13]. Indeed, the over-65s are spending more time online than any of the other age groups in the survey.

An Axa survey finds that “using the internet is the preferred hobby of pensioners”, over DIY/gardening and travel. Furthermore, 88% of pensioners who use the internet “chat regularly with friends and family” and are “embracing the web to enhance their social lives and keep in touch with family”.
So older people are engaging with the internet, increasingly so, but are they using social tools?

The average ages of social sites is surprising: YouTube (34.4), Facebook (34.6 years) [14], Friends Reunited (43.8) and Saga Zone (62) [15]. Indeed, almost as many in the over 55 age group use Facebook globally as in the 25-34 age group. Not only are these sites not just the preserve of the teens and twenty-somethings, as is often assumed, but pensioners will actively engage with sites such as Saga Zone that are relevant to their interests.
Kathryn Corrick concluded from this and other data that:

“Baby boomers and ‘silver surfers’ are not averse to digital technology. Their motivations for going online are the similar as other generations: socialising, communication , learning, sharing, shopping, bargain hunting, organising. Like all other ages groups usage of all digital media is rapidly increasing. [And it] is no longer a matter of what kind of sites/services this demographic are not using, rather which ones are they using more than others.” [16]

Another part of the mythology surrounding silver surfers is that they lack confidence with technology. Whilst this is undoubtedly true of some, a recent Ofcom study, [17] found that lack of interest was a more important problem than lack of confidence.

When asked how confident they were in finding what they want on the internet, 78% of the 60+ age group were very or fairly confident, and 14% were not very or not at all confident, compared to 91% and 5% of all adults aged 16 or over. When asked about their confidence in using “creative elements that media such as the internet and mobile phones offer”, 44% said they were very or fairly confident, and 44% were not very or not at all confident, compared to 66% and 25% for the 16+ group. So whilst older people are less confident, their overall confidence levels are actually very respectable.

Regarding the creative elements of the internet, such as uploading photos or commenting on blogs, overall interest levels in both 16+ and 60+ groups were very low. Of adults aged 60+, 42% have either uploaded or are interested in uploading photos to the internet, but 56% are not interested, compared to 61% and 39% for all adults aged 16+. And only 18% of the 60+ age group either have or are interested in commenting on someone else’s blog, with 82% not interested, compared to 29% and 69% for all adults over 16.

Ofcoms figures are, however, problematic, because they do not split out different age groups to give a clearer picture of how popular activities are within different age ranges, lumping the entire adult population together as 16+, and comparing that to the 60+ group. Other parts of research, e.g. questions about use of advanced mobile phone functions, show that the 70+ age group is consistently less interested and less confident with technology than those aged 60-69, and their responses will therefore pull down the figures for the 60-69 age group (moreso than they do the 16+ age group). There was no data for the 50-59 age group, which (can) also form a section of the ‘silver surfer’ demographic group.

The question of interest, rather than confidence, being a key reason for the lack of engagement by older people is to be expected given that the main demographic targeted by most websites are the 18-35s, who are perceived to have the greatest engagement with the web and also the greatest disposable income.

Ramifications for civil society associations
These finding show that age is not a reliable predictor of interest, capability, confidence or engagement with technology in general, or social media in particular. Whether civil society associations are looking for technically competent staff or volunteers to work on their web presence and use of social media tools, or whether they are assessing the potential reach within their target audience that such tools may have, they must do so with an open mind.

When considering hiring staff or recruiting volunteers, organisations must firstly remember that not all ‘youngsters’ are automatically competent with technology. Although many teens and young adults use social tools in their personal lives, they may not have the necessary perspective to transfer those skills to a different context, such as a professional or volunteering context. Conversely, the over-30s may have a deeper understanding of technology and a broader capability to apply that knowledge in a novel context.

However, it must be emphasised that with social media, it is mindset not skill set that is important. The right people will be curious about technology, eager to experiment, will understand how interpersonal relationships develop, will be good communicators and will have a solid understanding of their community’s culture. Such skills can be found in people of any age.

Equally, when formulating web strategies, it is important not to assume older people, whether you define that as 50+ or 60+, are absent from the web. Whilst there is room for improvement in the number of over-50s online and their confidence levels, the cart should not be put before the horse. A lack of content relevant to that age-group would naturally result in fewer of them engaging with the internet. An increase in relevant content, whether that’s in the traditional sense of information and media or whether it is social websites aimed specifically at older people and where they can create and share their own content, could be expected to increase engagement in the 50+ age group.

This should be good news for civil society organisations, especially those focusing on older people, as the indicators are that there are many opportunities for them to reach out and engage with the over-50s digitally by providing them with a reason to learn more about technology. Given our ageing population, engagement with the 50+ age group should be a key consideration for all civil society associations.

Finally, it must be emphasised that the terms ‘digital native’ and ‘silver surfer’ should not be used as demographic descriptors. Instead, it is preferable to talk in terms of level and type of digital engagement, and to recognise that these vary within all age groups.

Please note that these references aren’t complete! If you happen to have any of them to hand, let me know.

[2] (Bennett et al)
[3] The digital native — myth and reality, Neil Welwyn, March 2009
[4] (Williams and Rowlands 2007)
[5] (Sue Bennett, Karl Maton and Lisa Kervin, in their paper The Digital Natives Debate: A critical review of the evidence)
[6] (Golding 200)
[7] (Vandewater et al. 2007, Looker and Thiessen 2003)
[8] {boyd, 2007, MacArthur Foundation Series on Digital Learning, Youth, Identity, and Digital Media Volume}
[9] (Bennett et al.)
[10] (Palfrey, get citation)
[11] (find citations)
[12] (National Statistics – Internet Access Report August 2007)
[13] (OfCom 2007 – find citation)
[14] (Nielsen Online, UK NetView, home & work data, including applications, October 200&)
[15] (CIM Presentation 2007)
[16] (
[17] (Ofcom, Digial Lifestyles, Adults aged 60 and over, 14 May 2009)

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