March 28, 2004

Older Americans and the Internet

Part 1. 22% of Americans 65 and older use the Internet

The gap is narrowing, but Americans age 65 and older still lag behind younger generations when it comes to Internet access.

In 1996, just 2% of Americans age 65 or older went online.1 By the year 2000, that percent had increased to 15% of seniors.2 In a February 2004 survey, 22% of Americans age 65 or older reported having access to the Internet. This represents a 47% increase between 2000 and 2004. Eight million seniors now go online. By contrast, 58% of Americans age 50-64, 75% of 30-49 year-olds, and 77% of 18-29 year-olds go online as of February 2004. 

“Wired seniors” — Americans age 65 and older who say they go online to access the Internet or World Wide Web or to send and receive email

If they do not go online, seniors are the least likely group to live with someone who does.  Just 13% of non-users age 65 or older live in a household with Internet access, compared to 35% of non-users age 50-64 years old.3

“Off-line seniors” or “non-user seniors” — Americans age 65 and older who do not use the Internet

Women reach parity with men in the wired senior population. Certain demographic groups among seniors are likely to avoid using the Internet.

In the year 2000, about 60% of wired seniors were men and about 40% were women. In February 2004, the gender ratio among wired seniors has shifted to 50% men and 50% women – the same ratio as the general Internet population.


Certain demographic groups among seniors are likely to avoid using the Internet.

It is still predominately whites, highly-educated seniors, and those living in households with higher incomes who have Internet access, although there have been gains since 2000. Data gathered in several surveys throughout 2003 were combined in order to get an accurate estimate for older members of minority groups such as African Americans and Hispanics.

  • Lower education, lower income seniors

In the year 2000, about three-quarters of wired seniors had attended college, compared to 36% of all seniors, and a quarter of wired seniors had a high school education or less. In the ensuing three years, less-educated seniors have gained ground online. In February 2004, 62% of wired seniors have at least some college education, compared to 35% of all Americans age 65 or older. Thirty percent of wired seniors have a high school education or less, compared to 58% of all seniors. 

In 2000, one in four wired seniors lived in a household with an annual income over $75,000, compared to just 8% of all seniors.  In February 2004, 17% of wired seniors live in high-income households, compared to 4% of all seniors.  It is important to note, however, that fully 39% of seniors refused to answer the income question in February 2004.

  • African Americans

Just 11% of African Americans age 65 and over reported using the Internet in 2003, compared to 22% of senior whites. By comparison, 7% of senior African Americans went online in 2000. African Americans as a group lag behind whites when it comes to Internet access, but the difference is most stark in the over-55 population. For example, in 2003, 83% of whites between 18-24 years-old had Internet access compared to 68% of African Americans in that age group.  But while 58% of whites between 55-64 years-old have Internet access, just 22% of African Americans in that pre-retirement age group have access.

  • Hispanics

Twenty-one percent of English-speaking Hispanics age 65 and over reported using the Internet in 2003, which is statistically equal to the 22% of senior non-Hispanic whites who had access. By comparison, 17% of senior Hispanics went online in 2000. So while English-speaking Hispanics lag behind non-Hispanic whites in many age groups, they reach parity in the senior population. For example, 70% of English-speaking Hispanics age 18-24 reported using the Internet in 2003, compared to 83% of non-Hispanic whites in that age group.  And while 32% of English-speaking Hispanics age 55-64 had access in 2003, we found that 58% of non-Hispanic whites in that age group reported going online during the same time period.

Computer use in general is lower among seniors; Most seniors go online at home, via dial-up connections.

Twenty-nine percent of Americans age 65 and older say they use a computer at their workplace, at school, at home, or some other location on at least an occasional basis.  By contrast, 71% of Americans age 50-64 use a computer. Both groups have become more computer-savvy since 2000, when 21% of seniors and 59% of Americans age 50-64 said they used a computer.

Tobey Dichter, founder and CEO of Generations on Line,4 points out that many seniors have an antique notion of computers, counting their use of punch cards in the 1960s and 1970s as “computer experience.” She says many elders are afraid they will break any new technology they attempt to learn.  “Access, skill, and intimidation are the barriers – and the greatest of these is intimidation,” according to Dichter.

Most seniors go online at home, via dial-up connections.

Ninety-five percent of wired seniors say they go online at home and 10% go online at work. Some of these seniors use multiple places to access the Internet, so the figures add up to more than 100%.  By contrast, 90% of the general Internet population goes online at home and 51% goes online at work. Seventy-two percent of wired seniors who go online at home have a dial-up connection, compared to 54% of the general Internet population who go online from home.

Once seniors get online, they are just as enthusiastic as younger users.

However, once someone age 65 and older gets access, they are often as enthusiastic as younger users in the major activities that define online life.  For example:

  • Wired seniors are as likely as younger users to go online on a typical day. When asked if they happened to go online or check their email yesterday, 59% of Internet users age 65 and older said yes, they had – essentially the same percentage as the general Internet population (56%).  
  • Wired seniors are as likely as younger users to use email. Ninety-four percent of wired seniors have sent or received email – again, essentially the same percent as the general Internet population (91%).  
  • Wired seniors are nearly as likely as younger users to use a search engine to answer a specific question. Seventy-six percent of wired seniors have used a search engine to find information, compared to 80% of all Internet users.

In our 2001 report we noted that the more years of online experience a wired senior has, the more likely he is to fit the pattern of other online veterans (those with three or more years experience) by going online first thing in the morning, spending more time online, and trying more activities. 

In the fall of 2000, just 23% of Internet users age 65 or older had three or more years of experience with email and the Web.  In February 2004, 77% of Internet users age 65 or older have four or more years of experience online. Today’s wired seniors are more like the general Internet population – an experienced, savvy group of users who are more willing to sample all the Internet has to offer.

The next section details the activities most popular – and unpopular – among wired seniors.

  1. Pew Research Center for the People and the Press: April 1996 Biennial Media Consumption Survey. Available at: http://people-press.org/reports/display.php3?ReportID=127
  2. Fox, Susannah. Pew Internet & American Life Project: “Wired Seniors: A fervent few, inspired by family ties.” (September 9, 2001) Available at: http://www.pewinternet.org/Reports/2001/Wired-Seniors.aspx
  3. Lenhart, Amanda. Pew Internet & American Life Project: “The Ever-shifting Internet Population: A new look at Internet access and the digital divide.” (April 16, 2003) Available at: http://www.pewinternet.org/Reports/2003/The-EverShifting-Internet-Population-A-new-look-at-Internet-access-and-the-digital-divide.aspx
  4. numoffset=”4″ www.generationsonline.org