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Age Discrimination


The following opinion pieces have been published by the President and Commissioners. Reproduction of the opinion pieces must include reference to where the opinion piece was originally published.

Author: Ms Susan Ryan, Age Discrimination Commissioner at the Australian Human Rights Commission

Published inThe Hoopla Wednesday, 1 February 2012.

I was wracking my brains for a subject to write about that would make sense for my first column in this esteemed online publication, when I thought – that’s it – the Internet!

Until recently I was one of those people who saw access to the Internet as a nice option, but not a necessity. I’ve recently changed my mind, completely.

I became totally convinced that everyone, especially older Australians wherever they live, needs to be able to use the net, and use it with confidence and skill. My epiphany came when I recently did some research for a submission to a parliamentary committee inquiry into cybersafety for senior Australians. I saw that, without Internet skills, older Australians will miss out on so much.

We need internet competence to avail ourselves of Wendy’s tasty offerings on The Hoopla. As well, we need it for shopping, social contacts, family news, vital information, entertainment and, coming soon, personalised health care.

Increasingly, those of us who can’t get access, or lack the skills, or are scared off by stories of scams and rip-offs, will miss out on, not only many pleasures of contemporary living, but the essentials too. Lots of Australians now use Internet shopping for value and convenience. Too many people however are excluded from these benefits.

Older people with mobility problems, or people housebound because of a disability, need more than the rest of us to be able to go online for food shopping, household items, banking, contact with family and friends, and entertainment. Even more crucial, trials are now showing that medical consultations, GP advice, nursing care can be done, cheaply and safely, through the net. But, the housebound person must have access and must be skilled enough to use it easily.

Getting back to the Cybersafety enquiry, we know that at least half of those over 65 have limited or no Internet access and only a third of those actually enjoy going online. In contrast, over 75% of 14-19 year olds show high enjoyment using the net. This is indeed a digital divide. On the wrong side of the divide, you are cut off from convenient and low cost ways of buying food and other necessities. Without the wonders of email and Skype you will struggle to keep in touch with grandchildren overseas or friends in other towns.

One big obstacle for older people is fear of fraud. Online fraud is far too common and more people over 65 than younger groups become victims of financial fraud. Though it may be cold comfort for the oldies, the 45-54 year group is the most vulnerable to dating scams.

What can be done, to make sure older Australians, indeed all of us, can use the net safely?

The building of the NBN will bring the possibility of services to most people, but other obstacles must be tackled. We need widely available free or low-cost lessons on net usage. Research shows one-on-one training works best and that savvy young people make very good tutors for older users. With government and community support, we could get such classes going most places.

But the fear of fraud, and indeed the real vulnerability to it, has to be addressed. All Internet service providers could be encouraged to give all their users simple and effective training packages with protective tools and clear guidelines about how to recognise a scam and how to dispose of it. As a back-up for those too fearful to go on the net to access this help, the information should go out in newspapers, magazines (including Seniors publications), local papers and on TV and radio.

In Australia, we recognise access to information as a basic human right. With the dominance of the net, and the transfer by governments and businesses of most essential processes to the online environment, internet access becomes part of that basic right. We need to do everything possible to make sure that this right, like all basic human rights, can be exercised by everyone, everywhere, every day.