How to be old—we're all learning

How many older people use the internet? Surprising research from New Zealand

Slide from Professor Miriam Lips’ Nethui talk about research on digital inclusion for seniors

How do older people use the internet? Easy, right? They don’t—or do they? (They being me.) We have often been told that seniors are Luddites who avoid using email and smartphone apps and online games and Skype and blogs and social media and other digital technology. But hang on, even if that used to be true, is it still true?

At last we have up-to-date information about how older people use the internet in New Zealand, and it’s mighty interesting. At Partners’ Day before NetHui NZ, we got a preview of several research studies, including the findings of Miriam Lips, Professor of Digital Government (Victoria University of Wellington School of Government) and her team.

Every slide got me thinking, and I’m looking forward to a full report being published next month.

Meanwhile, let’s think about this one slide and its implications. First I’ll provide a text version below, because, alas, I suspect many of you have trouble reading pale text on a cream background. (People of all ages struggle with low-contrast text. That’s not news, by the way. Sigh.)

Description of the slide: Older people using the internet and other technology

First a paragraph explaining why it’s worth researching this topic:

Technology presents an opportunity to improve the lives of older people—improving health care and connections with family and friends. Conversely, those who do not have digital tools or do not have access to technology are unable to realise its benefits.

Now to the nitty gritty—2019 data about the level of internet usage in New Zealand residents of various age groups:

Internet usage by age

  • Under 65: over 97% use the internet
  • 65–74: 90% use the internet
  • 75–84: 75% use the internet
  • 85 and older: only 50% use the internet

A plunge in internet usage after the age of 75

There’s hardly any drop in internet usage between people 65–74 and younger people. Then suddenly in the next ten years, the gap doubles from 7% to 15%. And among those 85 and older, usage plunges by 25%.

Doubtless the full report will explain these figures legitimately. Meanwhile here are my own conclusions, or rather, hypotheses.

When it comes to using the internet and other technology, we’d better stop thinking of people in their 60s and mid-70s as old. Their habits are similar to those of younger people. And 10 years from now, that may well be true of people in their eighties. We shall see.

Why are the stats changing? I assume for two reasons:

When the internet entered the workplace in 1996:

Lots to think about in one small dose of data! I look forward to the full report from Professor Lips’ team on this aspect of digital government: how older people use the internet, and how to help those who would benefit from it.