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Older people need the internet too

Discrimination Age Discrimination

It would be safe to say that in less than twenty years the way we communicate has been transformed by the internet. Yet it is easy to forget that not everyone has been included in this revolution.

Today, our world is rapidly shifting to cyberspace. Most services are available online. Retailing is increasingly moving online. News is transitioning from newspapers to the internet. And entertainment - such as video rentals, broadcast TV and even sport betting - will be delivered to us through the worldwide web.

All this is very exciting, bringing a new digital information age of convenience, self-service and lightning fast delivery. It is fantastic – primarily for those of us who have grown up with this technology or have worked and actively engaged with it since its early days, particularly through work.

But what of those of us who have not had that opportunity? What of those among us who have not had any real imperative to start to move our lives online?

The biggest group of people in this situation are older people – those in our community particularly those over 65.

To chart how this has happened, think about that fact that it was only 1993 when public servants working in Commonwealth departments were given desktop computers and expected to learn to use them. Those computers weren’t connected to the internet, but by 1995, dial-up connections had become widespread in Australian homes.

A person who retired aged 55 in 1995 would today be 68.

So, clearly a great many of today’s over 65s were not required to work with computers, would not have needed to invest in one at home and, as a consequence, internet access has not become a part of their lives.

These people now need assistance to become confident and competent internet users. They need assistance to be brought into the same world as us and to share the same digital opportunities we have.

While internet usage is increasing for older people, less than half of over 65s are online, with only 37% going online in 2010-11 – that is a total of 1,790,000 Australians over 65 who are not online. In comparison 79% of Australians aged 15 years and over access the internet.

Yet the greatest growth in internet usage in any age group is in the 55–64 year age group, up from 63% in 2008–09 to 71% in 2010–11.

It is time to make the internet ‘age friendly’.

Ageing happens to everyone, so building age friendly procedures and facilities in communities now is an investment for everyone for the future – the internet is no exception.

Access to the internet can vastly improve the quality of life for seniors who find it difficult to leave the house. It has the potential to counter social isolation and play a role in the delivery of community and health services.

In reverse, housebound seniors who are without internet access at home are at risk of becoming more isolated and disadvantaged as services are increasingly provided mainly online.

And let’s not forget that this also applies to people who are isolated for a myriad of other reasons, including by disability and geography.

We need to remember that the ability to access, receive and impart information is a human right - Article 19 of The Universal Declaration of Human Rights 1948 states that everyone has the right to “seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media regardless of frontiers”.

Research in 2011 by the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Creative Industries and Innovation found the key barriers preventing seniors from using the internet were a lack of skills, confusion by technology, and concerns about security and viruses.

Older people may also be worried by the cost of technology, or may be prevented by deterioration of their sight or fine motor skills.

The first step is to support and encourage older people to go online and the next is to give them the confidence and skills to protect themselves from cybercrime.

To this end, the Australian Government already has its Broadband for Seniors Initiative which provides funding for 2,000 free Internet kiosks in community centres, retirement villages and seniors clubs across Australia. There are also other great initiatives like Nan Bosler’s inspirational Australian Seniors Computer Clubs Association.

But the approach needs to be unified and concerted, and extended to cover older Austrlians wherever they live. It needs to be part of the way we do business. It needs to be part of our culture. It should be delivered in ways that respect difference and diversity - that is it should avoid stereotypes and be inclusive.

Australian Human Rights Commission research shows that older people are vastly underrepresented in advertising and the media. While 14.2% of the population are aged 65 years or over, they only feature in 4.7% of advertising and 6.6% of editorial media content.

Many of the representations of older people reflect only the negatives of ageing, such as ill-health, isolation, slowness and ignorance of technology - stereotypes far from the whole truth that ignore the majority of older Australians who are healthy, active and big contributors to their communities and their families.

Our research shows that older people want to see representations of themselves that they relate to – that properly reflect the diversity of their experiences.

As a colleague of mine is fond of saying, - you can’t be what you can’t see.

With the digital age, service providers and designers of policy and communications have the unique opportunity not only to create products and experiences that work, but that can also breakdown negative attitudes, reduce isolation and create inclusiveness.

The use of the internet is probably one of the greatest looming arenas in this regard.

From a human rights perspective, it is certainly both the great communication challenge and opportunity of our time.

Published in On Line Opinion