Wednesday, November 19, 2008

That Dang Thing: Computers and Older User

In 2004, Cynthia Selfe and Gail Hawisher published Literate Lives in an Information Age, a study of over 350 computer users. The book is an important work of research that details compellingly the way people from different walks of life acquire what Selfe and Hawisher call “literacies of technology” (2).

In making their case, they look at race, class, and gender barriers, but among the twenty case studies they focus on, there are few older computer users. After reading their book, then, I became curious about the way seniors acquire this literacy. What barriers remain for those looking to reach out? What features of websites need to be changed to make online environments more welcoming to seniors? What training services are available through widely known organizations like AARP? To what proven extent does computer use combat loneliness among older users, especially the bereaved?

And, centrally, does technological literacy mean something different for those users whose adult lives mostly pre-dated wide computer use? For them, does literacy still constitute, in the words of Selfe and Hawisher, “the power to enact change in the world” (82), or can literacy merely be the ability to connect to that world?

I want to first survey the pertinent literature on older computer users since there are some disagreements about both barriers and benefits. An important early study, “Silver Surfers: Training and Evaluating Internet Use among Older Adult Learners,” argues strongly for senior immersion in technology. M.J. Cody, et al., suggest that the elderly “represent one of the largest groups of information 'have nots' in the United States, and [. . .] would benefit in many ways from gaining computer literacy” (269).

That study was based on a long-term training program in an extended-care facility and found that seniors who completed the training felt a sense of well-being:

"Once trained, online adult learners experienced feelings of social support, connectivity, and reduced technology-related anxiety. Some learned to spend hours online each week, and some became absorbed in searching websites, emailing, and gathering news online." (281)

The problem with their work was that the sample was mostly self-selecting, and the results of the study showed, self-evidently, that people willing to go through training are not necessarily emblematic of a wider senior population. Besides that shortcoming, I want to include questions that Cody, et al., ask that underline my own inquiry. They write, “How can we train [. . .] older adults to use the Internet and to fulfill social and information needs? Can we demonstrate that Internet access will produce the intended, desirable, cognitive, educational, and social outcomes?” (270)

While they believe they do illustrate that these advances are possible, many studies downplay the effect of Internet use on the well-being of seniors, finding the Cody study overly-optimistic. The authors of the article “Computer Use Has No Demonstrated Impact on the Well-Being of Older Adults” need not be quoted for us to realize their opinion, but others echo less forcefully. Karin Slegers, et al., report,

"[W]e did not find consistent evidence for an impact, either positive or negative, of using computers and the Internet on several aspects of well-being and autonomy of healthy older adults. This implies that [. . .] the benefits of computer and Internet-related activities for personal use are limited." (180)

Kevin Wright, meanwhile, hypothesizing that Internet use could be a locus of social support for grieving people, found that Internet users and non-Internet users proclaimed equal levels of that support. In fact, “low Internet communicators tended to have higher non-Internet support satisfaction scores” (110).

What this tells me is not that the Internet saps real-life support, but that people who don't have attention from their families and friends may use, and need, the Internet differently than those who do. Negative reports, of course, need to be mitigated by the fact that many seniors for whom the Internet might be a help are still excluded from its use.

Writing in the wonderfully titled article “The Information Aged,” Neil Selwyn suggests that “[T]he potential of [information and communications technologies] for empowerment of older adults has been tempered by a succession of reports that technology is proving in practice to be an activity that many older adults are excluded from” (370).

I want to look now at the numerous barriers that keep Internet use more difficult than it should be. Certainly access has to be first in our minds. Economic and other factors contribute to limited technological resources. According to Robert J. Campbell, “In the United States, elderly adults make up 13% of the population, with only 4% using the Internet. Overall, 56% of America is online and out of that percentage, only 15% age 65 and over have direct access to the Internet” (162).

Added to the fact that many people don't have the hardware, others feel a deep anxiety about computers. Slegers notes this and combines it with an argument about education: “It seems that older adults with lower education levels and who need more time for everyday tasks are more prone to lack of technology adoption” (182).

Though many of these gerontology reports seem to make obvious points, it's important to remember that advances in technology have often been understood to widen already stark educational and socioeconomic gaps. Again, it's an irony that those who feel anxious about Internet use might be the very same people who would benefit most from affirming online relationships and the opportunities therein.

We can make the same assumption about those with physical ailments who could benefit from online access to health information. Interestingly, Wright “predicted that those engaging in more social online activity would report more health and mental problems, and more limits to daily life due to health problems, compared to less social users” (39).

There are correlations, then, between physical ailments and increased online activity as well as correlations between physical ailments and inability to engage in that activity. Scholars (and seniors) often cite vision problems and arthritis as common villains.

Three of the biggest barriers can be understood together, I think. First, we should keep in mind the additional time it takes novice computer users to do simple desktop tasks and the fact that that situation will generally be worse for older users. Even the requirement to double-click a mouse can be prohibitive. This frustration adds to the difficulty of learning; plus, older users often feel resentment to new technology that they have always gotten along fine without.

Even my mother, who is only in her late fifties, feels a sense of inferiority (and nostalgia for a pre-computer time) when she comes face-to-face with anything on the computer that thwarts her. Often, we discount what is either hard for us to learn or what seems not to have an application. Selwyn hits on this as he summarizes oral histories he conducted with older people:

As we saw from our interviews with current nonusers of computers, having no need or no interest in using computers is a regularly cited and powerful rationale [for nonuse]. There is a need here to consider the 'relative advantage' and 'situation relevance' of [information and communications technology] use for older adults. (382)

Time issues surrounding learning, and the belief that computers are “just not for me” are symptoms of technological mistrust. These barriers might be remedied with some old-fashioned product placement; those who see the possible benefits of computer use among older users and are seeking to help them become active members of lively computer activity need only to look for ways to package their information in recognizable and useful terms.

Medical professionals, local news sources, church groups, and senior-advocacy organizations can be deliverers of the computer-education goods, thereby combatting computer illiteracy and mistrust. Theirs are the organizations that engender trust, and they can be the proverbial spoon full of sugar that helps the technological medicine go down.

AARP, for instance, has published a number of articles with titles like “Computers Aren't Scary.” That sort of campaign combined with the down-to-earth message that computers can be useful will go a long way toward opening up what Selfe and Hawisher call “technological gateways” (26).

There should be no conclusive study that computer use is either a panacea or a worthless activity for seniors.

My response to the negative studies that show no discernible benefit and my response to those who see computers as merely a hobby is to think of this machine as a hammer. It has its functions if used well and it's undeniable that such a tool can be a benefit. Does a hammer change lives? It certainly can. And while this analogy is admittedly problematic, it comes from a place of frustration about sociological studies that try to measure objectively unmeasurable things like well-being and happiness; those studies' statistical models show no numerical increase in happiness and write off the possible individual social benefits of literacies of technology.

That said, Utopian studies that find Internet use radically bettering lives might need to be a bit more moderate, too. With this paper, then, I want to resist wide declarations either way and focus instead on small steps that can be taken to open technological gateways, literacy gateways.

Being sensitive to the needs of older users is paramount for computer programmers and designers, web writers and advertisers. We should remember that older users might not need so much to be brought up to speed as they need to be considered and included during the generation of web content.

Selwyn writes, “[R]ather than trying to change older adults, older adults should be involved in changing [information and communications technology] to be more of an attractive, interesting, or useful option [. . .]” (382). I want to take a concise look, then, at some websites that are geared toward seniors and at studies on web-design issues as they pertain to senior-user accessibility.

T.A. Hart, et al.'s article “Evaluating Websites for Older Adults [. . .]” lays out a set of guidelines that I use to analyze the “senior-friendliness” (Hart) of and While they write that “more companies have begun to design software and hardware that accommodate the needs of the ageing [sic] user,” their article insists that more should be done, especially in the areas of large text size, clear site maps, and simple hyperlinks.

They find that more than half of sites that are geared toward seniors, not to mention general interest sites, are not compliant in these areas. They also note that tight spacing, inconsistent layout, and pull-down menus cause problems. But how does fare when we consider the guidelines Hart cites?

I visited the site a number of times in November 2008. It's relatively clear, but strikes me as a busy site; there are nearly thirty boxes above the fold and the words are relatively small. It uses light text on light backgrounds and employs pull-down menus. The National Institute on Aging's guidelines that Hart cites suggest that websites should use icons as hyperlinks, but does not always do this.

I don't include these details to condemn the site, but rather to give us a sense of the small design issues that can keep senior-users at arm's length, even on sites that were born for their use. For instance, offers FAQ, help, and site tour options, but none of them are immediately apparent on the home page. A page like this ought to be a technological gateway, and, though it offers useful services, its presentation could improve to allow for easy learning, not only about how to navigate this site, but how to navigate a wider online community.

By typing “computer” into the search bar, though, we do find that offers many articles to help the novice user. Their slogan is, after all, “the power to make it better,” which reminds me of Selfe and Hawisher's definition of literacy. And so, in order to improve computer literacy skills of the site's visitors, includes articles like “Where to Find Computer Help,” “User Groups Help Solve Computer Problems,” and “Older Americans Turn to Their Children for Computer Support.”, a dating site, has an simpler look, but it lacks help pages, too. It's a membership site and so allows only basic contact without payment. The page, though, and other sites like, provide possible support systems for single and widowed seniors. One visitor wrote “I love this site!! It's so easy to use!! I'm not so shy anymore.”

Such anecdotal evidence speaks to the connection between ease of use and possibility for social support. It strikes me that this particular comment can refer to both social and technological shyness. The assumption is that if we lessen technological shyness, increase technological literacy, we might see a decrease in social shyness online. In fact, loneliness, both romantic and otherwise, is at the center of my inquiry.

I call for more studies in the Selfe-Hawisher vein so that we can understand better the way loneliness can actually be a catalyst for increased Internet activity, and how that activity can counteract those feelings. Selwyn quotes seniors saying that use “makes you independent” (373) and that it “keeps the brain ticking a bit” (379), but to what extent can it keep the heart ticking, to what extent have loneliness and loss inspired seniors to acquire the literacies of technology?

And how might content generators be more attuned to the needs of these folks? We can generally assume how those in their twenties and thirties acquired their computer skills, but for this older population, new collections of oral histories may reveal whether social necessity compels many seniors to take the leap and double click.

Shima Sum concludes in a study that “greater use of the Internet as a communication tool was associated with a lower level of social loneliness. In contrast, greater use of the Internet to find new people was associated with a higher level of emotional loneliness” (208).

Further research should gather the stories of these people in order to understand how their acquisitions of literacies of technology were connected to loneliness. For younger people, computer use has much to do with education and professional advancement; it's a baseline skill in high school and college courses. Social activity is in many ways an added bonus, an important diversion.

It seems that for many older people, though, social activity on the Internet is the first sign of their increasing computer literacy. Instead of the “power to enact change,” then, literacy for them may be about the power to make friends. In one of the oral histories I conducted, Barbara Duncan reported that “even my husband's mother who's 82 got a computer just a few years ago to be able to email her family.” Certainly, others move beyond family to meet those with common interests and common sufferings.

Of course, this sort of connection is often part and parcel with grief and the loss of a spouse. Seniors who are suddenly thrust into independence sometimes acquire literacy on these terms. Shapira, Barak, and Gal write, “[T]he Internet has created new opportunities for people in distress when traditional resources are unreachable or unattainable or require special effort. These opportunities include online therapy and counseling, online support groups and health-related information” (477).

And Wright rightly writes, “Older adults occasionally may use Internet relationships to cope with major stressful events, but, based on findings from previous research, I suggest [. . .that. . .] [s]eniors will have larger companionship networks than social support networks on the Internet” (105).

Though Wright's study implies that seniors seek informal ties as a sort of distraction from sadness, Jeffrey Noel and Joel Epstein argue that “[i]n this context of aging and loss, even social ties that are otherwise considered 'weak' provide a vital connection to the world, and a feeling of self-worth.” (38). We might consider senior Internet use in similar terms: even so-called 'weak' technological literacy skills can provide a sort of online senior center for those users looking to reach out and actively fill their days with company.

Selfe and Hawisher have paved the way for oral histories on the literacies of technology to be a primary mode of understanding computer use and, again, I call for a collection focusing on the stories of seniors who acquired skills for social reasons, for solace.

If we compare the language of gerontological studies with that of Selfe and Hawisher's contributors, we get a sense of what can be added by such a study. Shapira, Barak, and Gal write “[E]lderly people who began using the Internet felt less depressed and lonely, more satisfied with life [. . .] than did people who were engaged in other activities for the same period of time” (481); but gleaning that from a real person gives us a much better sense of the process of learning, of the quality of progression. Louise Flora, for instance, puts a face on the generalizations:

"It's a wonderful learning experience [. . .] The older you get, the more you need to use your brain power to keep it from atrophying" (Seattle Post-Intelligencer, 14 Dec. 2004).

Statistical and sociological studies are one thing, but for those of us in literacy studies, we need to follow Selfe and Hawisher's lead to hear the voices of the subjects, hear their triumphs and frustrations.

With those stories in hand, we'll know better what recommendations to make to content providers and those interested in promoting senior use of the Internet. We'll see, I think, that literacy can be about both “the power to enact change in the world” and the power to type “hello” on a lonely morning.

Works Cited: 19 Nov. 2008.

Cody, Michael J, Deborah Dunn, Shari Hoppin, and Pamela Wendt. “Silver Surfers: Training and Evaluating Internet Use Among Older Adult Learners.” Communication Education 48 (1999): 269-286.

Ellison, Jake. “Seniors Enter Cyberspace through Computer School.” Seattle Post-Intelligencer. 14 Dec. 2004. 19 Nov. 2008. .

Hart, T.A., B. S. Chaparro, and C. G. Halcomb. “Evaluating Websites for Older Adults: Adherence to 'Senior-Friendly' Guidelines and End-User Performance. Behaviour & Information Technology 27 (2008): 191-199.

Noel, Jeffrey G. and Joel Epstein. “Social Support and Health among Senior Internet Users: Results of an Online Survey. Journal of Technology in Human Services 21 (2003): 35-54.

Selfe, Cynthia L. and Gail E. Hawisher. Literate Lives in an Information Age. Philadelphia: Erlbaum, 2004.

Selwyn, Neil. “The Information Aged: A Qualitative Study of Older Adults' Use of Information and Communications Technology. Journal of Aging Studies 18 (2004): 369-384. 19 Nov. 2008.

Shapira N., A Barak, and I. Gal. “Promoting Older Adults' Well-Being through Internet Training and Use. Aging and Mental Health 11 (2007): 477-484.

Slegers, Karin, Martin P.J. van Boxtel, and Jelle Jolles. “Effects of Computer Training and Internet Usage on the Well-Being and Quality of Life of Older Adults: A Randomized, Controlled Study.” The Journals of Gerontology Series B: Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences 63 (2008): 176-184.

Sum, Shima, R. Mark Matthews, Ian Hughes, and Andrew Campbell. “Internet Use and Loneliness in Older Adults.” Cyberpsychology & Behavior 11 (2008): 208-211.

Wright, Kevin. “Computer-Mediated Social Support, Older Adults, and Coping.” Journal of Communication 50 (100-117).


Anonymous said...

Hm hm.. that's quiet interessting but frankly i have a hard time understanding it... I'm wondering what others have to say....

Anonymous said...

Как говорилось на Вот какая история со мной приключилась!!мой натуральный цвет тёмныё каштан!как то не так давно меня приспичило и я решила покраситься в блондинку......Ну естесственно сначала пробовала перекраситься собственноручно дома....Но получался рыжий цвет...и я решила пойти в салон!!!!мне осветлили волосы,получиля неприятный жёлтый цвет...потом покрасили в буквально пепельный....Но поскольку у меня волосы густые и длинные, естесственно же сверху,на голове волосы были страшного белого цвета,как будто сидина на голове...А внизу так и остался противно жёлтый цвет....Мне резко перехотелось быть блондинкой!!!Ну и я без задач,с первого раза(это большая редкость) перекрасилась в коричневый опять!!но он был не привлекательный...И в следствии этого я решила покраситься в тёмно коричневый цвет...я купила краску и вышел какой-то ужас((Сверху,на голове чисто чёрный цвет,а по длине такой коричнево-болотный...вообщем жуть!!!Ну и я естественно не многла ходить с таким цветом и решила перекраситься в чёный....к моему удивлению все волосы равномерно закрасились и я не вообще не ожидала,что мне пойдёт такой цвет!!Друзья,родный,близкие все в восторге от такого, до какой степени мне идёт чёрный цвет!!!И я подумала,что всё таки всё,что ни делается, делается к лучшему....Если б не произошла эта грусная история....То я бы никогда сама не покрасилась в чёрный и ещё бы долго эксперементировала с другими цветами...а так я наконец-то нашла свой цвет!!!)))