March 28, 2004

Older Americans and the Internet

Part 3. Implications for the future

Many seniors have no interest in going online. Those who do want to get access face significant barriers.

Eight in ten off-line seniors do not think they will ever go online.9 They often live lives far removed from the Internet, know few people who use email or surf the Web, and cannot imagine why they would spend money and time learning how to use a computer. But for the small group of seniors who are motivated to go online – or find themselves using the Internet despite personal reservations – there remain barriers to entry that are not unique to their age group, but combine in new ways to prevent widespread Internet use among Americans age 65 and older.

Lack of experience with computers

Just 29% of Americans age 65 and older uses a computer on at least an occasional basis.  Many of these Americans were probably not in the workforce when computers became standard issue at offices, schools, factories, and other work sites.

Lack of first- or even second-hand knowledge of the Internet

One in four Americans has never used the Internet and do not know anyone who does. Seniors make up a large portion of these “truly disconnected” Americans.10 This lack of peer or family reinforcement can have significant effects on a senior’s interest or ability to go online. In February 2001, 84% of wired seniors reported that they first got Internet access for reasons unrelated to work or school and about half of those said family members encouraged them to do so – a higher percent than any other age group. A nearly equal group (45%) said getting Internet access was just something they personally wanted to do. Very few wired seniors who first got online for personal reasons said they received encouragement from friends. By contrast, 52% of all Internet users said they got access for personal reasons, not work or school, and friends had a greater influence than family members.11

Younger Internet users are often eager to share the benefits of email and the Web with their parents, grandparents, or other older relatives. A 2003 survey of young people (age 25-44) who assist an older relative with computer questions found that 80% reported positive effects, including an increase in their ability to stay in touch.12 More than six in ten respondents helped set up a computer for their older relative. Eight in ten respondents said they taught their older relative how to use a computer. Forty-five percent of the seniors asked their children or other younger relatives for help searching for information related to travel and entertainment.  Next on the list were health information and information about books, movies, and music. Without hands-on support, many older Americans would not be able to go online.

Community learning centers can fill the gap left by the lack of family or friends willing or able to help. Philadelphia-based Generations on Line has developed step-by-step software designed specifically for those born between 1920 and 1929 and provides training at over 900 centers in 46 states and Canada.13 SeniorNet, another national organization which provides computer education and access for older adults, has 240 learning centers in the U.S. and abroad.14

Increased likelihood of vision problems or other disability

Seniors are more likely than any other age group to be living with some kind of disability. Twenty-eight percent of seniors reported in December 2002 that a disability, handicap, or chronic disease keeps them from participating fully in work, school, housework, or other activities.  By comparison, 21% of Americans between 50-64, 11% of Americans age 30-49, and 5% of Americans age 18-29 report such a disability.15 Americans of all ages who are living with a disability have among the lowest rates of Internet access in the country – just 4 in 10, compared to about 6 in 10 for the general population. Non-users living with a disability are less likely than other non-users to believe they will ever use the Internet and less likely than others to have friends or family who go online. 

Small type, low-contrast color choices, and pull-down menus can have a significant effect on an older user’s ability to navigate a site. The Nielsen Norman Group has found that standard Web sites are twice as difficult to use for wired seniors versus Internet users between 18-55 years old.16 Older users made nearly five errors per assigned task, compared with less than one error for younger users.

The National Institute on Aging and the National Library of Medicine conducted extensive research on how people age 60 or older use computers and published a checklist for Web site designers.17 They find that older adults lose the ability to detect fine details and therefore find it easier to read sans serif type at 12 point or 14 point type sizes. Older adults often process information more slowly than younger adults and therefore appreciate simple language and short sections of text.  Finally, older adults are more likely to be able to navigate a site that employs single-mouse clicks to access information, large icons, and clear navigation such as “Previous Page” and “Next Page” buttons.

Perhaps not surprisingly, usability tests conducted at the Fidelity Center for Applied Technology’s Human Interface Design department found that when specific design changes were made to accommodate older users, the changes also improved the performance of younger adults.18

Tomorrow’s seniors will transform the wired senior stereotype.

While just 22% of today’s senior population (age 65+) uses the Internet, there is a burgeoning group of Americans who are slightly younger but vastly more attached to the online world.

In our survey in February 2004, we find that 62% of Americans age 50-58 years-old and 46% of Americans age 59-68 have Internet access.  By contrast, just 17% of Americans age 69 and older have access.

In fact, older Baby Boomer Internet users (between 50 and 58 years old) are more like Generation X Internet users (between 28 and 39 years old) than like their older, “Mature” generational neighbors (those between 59 and 68 years old). 

Eighty-six percent of Generation X Americans and 76% of Americans age 50-58 use a computer at their workplace, at school, at home, or some other location, compared to 57% of Americans age 59-68 years old.  Generation X Internet users and Baby Boom Internet users are equally likely to go online from home and work on a typical day, whereas Mature Internet users are more likely to go online only at home.

Internet users in their 30s and 50s are also more alike than different when it comes to some key online pursuits. Seventy-five percent of Generation X Internet users and 75% of Baby Boomer Internet users get news online, compared to 67% of Internet users between 59 and 68 years old. Fifty-nine percent of Generation X Internet users and 55% of Baby Boomer Internet users do research online for their job, compared to 30% of Internet users between 59 and 68 years old. Thirty-seven percent of Generation X Internet users and 31% of Baby Boomer Internet users send instant messages, compared to 26% of Internet users between 59 and 68 years old.

The “silver tsunami” identified in the Pew Internet Project’s 2001 “Wired Seniors” report has gained momentum. As Internet users in their 50s get older and retire, they are unlikely to give up their wired ways and therefore will transform the wired senior stereotype.

  1. Lenhart, 2003.
  2. Lenhart, 2003.
  3. Fox, 2001.
  4. AARP: “Wired Generations: Getting By With A Little Help From One’s Kids.” (July 2003) Available at: http://links.aarp.org/generationsreport
  5. http://www.generationsonline.org
  6. www.seniornet.org
  7. Fox and Fallows, 2003.
  8. Nielsen Norman Group: “Web Usability for Senior Citizens.” Summary available at: http://www.nngroup.com/reports/seniors
  9. http://www.nlm.nih.gov/pubs/checklist.pdf
  10. Chadwick-Dias, Ann; Michelle McNulty; and Tom Tullis. Fidelity Investments: “Web Usability and Age: How Design Changes Can Improve Performance.” (November 2003.) More information available at: http://www.acm.org/sigs/sigchi/cuu2003/program.htm