Strengthening digital social inclusion

Many seniors perceive risks that deter their use of technology that could enrich their lives, write the Shaping Connections team.

Many seniors perceive risks that deter their use of technology that could enrich their lives, write the Shaping Connections team.

Social exclusion is a significant threat to the wellbeing of older adults. As the Covid-19 pandemic has accelerated the need to close the digital divide, digital engagement has become even more crucial in fostering social inclusion. Alongside this, digital technologies are an increasingly important area of focus for aged care providers as part of their service offerings.

So, how can we address this conspicuous area of digital-social inclusion?

Researchers from RMIT University have partnered with the University of the Third Age (U3A) as part of a broader project to design strategies in conjunction with older consumers that incorporate their lived experiences of communications technology.

The Shaping Connections team (frem left): Professor Larissa Hjorth, Jacob Sheahan, Associate Professor Bernardo Figueiredo, Professor Diane M. Martin, Professor Mike Reid, Dr Torgeir Aleti

Seeking to support seniors in managing security risks, we hope to better equip them in engaging with the digital economy. Our recent report has begun to detail the perceived risks that act as barriers to technology use for this cohort.

By capturing the insights of the Victorian U3A network through early targeted interviews with members, followed by a broad survey of the network, their insights tell us a lot about their means and ability to access the digital economy.

“I used to joke with other people that there’s no one single way you get into Zoom. You have to be flexible, and you can go in different pathways,” says Greg B, a 68-year-old male.

“I find that the people who program computers have a completely different thought process to me. It’s worse than even speaking a foreign language. I mean, it’s like I’m talking English, and they’re talking algebraic equations,” says 77-year-old female Patsy M.

Risk is also linked to confidence, especially in female participants.

Perceived security risks are one critical demotivator for older adults’ engagement with information and communication technology (ICT) and the digital economy.

Media reports of scammers, cyberbullying and hacking only further complicate the perceptions of risk for non-users. While online threats exist, older adults often base security concerns on their perceptions of risk.

As 77-year-old female participant Eda noted:

“But I also think that there’s a lot more misinformation on some of the things I watch… So, I do worry about misinformation on that, and how if you say something often enough, people tend to believe it.”

As part of an ACCAN – Australian Communications Consumer Action Network – grant, the research team is exploring such perceptions of risk and how we might move forward to address this issue, particularly how we might connect practice with perceptions.

Interviewees during the exploratory interview stage of the RMIT University project

Our study incorporated mixed methods including 426 paper and online surveys and 22 interviews from March 2020-2021 with older Victorians living at home. We found the following five types of responses to risks:

  • psychological risk – fear of making a wrong choice
  • financial risk – fear of wasting money
  • functional or performance risk – fear of the product or service not working correctly
  • social risk – fear of negative judgment by others such as friends and family members
  • physical risk – fear of the product or service being a threat to health.

Risk is also linked to confidence, especially in female participants. An important part of this dimension is having the community to reach out to ask for help.

“I don’t know what it is actually. I suppose it’s because I’m not at all confident, I don’t have a lot of self-confidence using technology, and I feel quite inferior because of it, which is mad, but I do,” says Marilyn B, a 78-year-old female.

“If I can’t fix something, I’ve always relied on somebody else, yes. I have no hesitation in getting help, or inviting somebody, either friend or family, to assist if I can’t find my way through it,” says 85-year-old female Sally C.

Moving out of the pandemic, developing digital inclusion strategies and technology access for all types of older adult learners is a key insight.

The role of intergenerational literacies to support older adults is a common practice. Grandchildren and adult children often played informal IT experts and also helped motivate reasons to use digital technology.

As 70-year-old female participant Helen noted:

“The daughter who keeps an eye on my bank account, told me recently I had to stop buying things online. I’m not buying a lot; I just buy … [mundane things].” 

For male participant, 64-year-old Dawood:

“I have my own account online, [I] go online, do it, and I feel safe. There is nothing to worry about. Some people say that ‘I don’t do it. I leave it to my son because I’m afraid I do a mistake, and my money will go to another account.’” 

If there is no family there or they live a long way away, friends and community play a big role in supporting IT adoption and practices. And this is where organisations like U3A play an integral role. By building social capital and trust, they help older adults through peer-to-peer learning.

While some might call on the IT support people for help, others reach out more informally. However, others again went quiet during the lockdowns because they didn’t go online, the issues involved, such as mental health or technology access, couldn’t be assessed.

Moving out of the pandemic, developing digital inclusion strategies and technology access for all types of older adult learners is a key insight.

Our findings highlight three key areas to focus on now:

  • developing digital literacy skills for perceived security risk
  • updating methods to capture security risk barriers in everyday life
  • realising the diversity in women’s digital practices.

These findings highlighting the barriers and nuances to the adoption of digital media amongst older Australians could have transferrable application in the aged care sector.

The increasingly intrinsic role of the digital economy in all aspects of our lives is something that remains when the pandemic ends. How digital inclusion can enrich social and material dimensions of older adults’ lives was highlighted by 79-year-old female participant Judy:

“…as an older person, you can go one of two ways: you can take up technology and go with it and learn with it, or else you can hide from it. People like that don’t realise what they’re missing out in life.”

Alongside the insights highlighted here, our findings suggest the pandemic has highlighted and amplified the inequality of perceptions, access, and digital literacy around ICT practices.

We recommend deeper investigation and co-design with older users of ICT around digital literacy, more nuanced methods in understanding barriers in everyday life and more extensive exploration into the diversity of women’s digital practices.

Given the ubiquity of digital media now, these findings highlighting the barriers and nuances to the adoption of digital media amongst older Australians could have transferrable application in the aged care sector.

While our research has detailed the experiences of older Victorians living at home, predominantly over 60 years of age, risks and motivators remain key factors in affecting residents’ confidence with ICTs.

As we have highlighted, digital inclusion strategies and technology access will remain critical areas where providers can focus.

As part of our ongoing project, these insights are being incorporated into an upcoming series of co-design workshops. Using the vignettes to stimulate conversation and reflect on perceptions of risks, participants will include older adults who use ICT in their every day, alongside stakeholders from organisations for digital inclusion such as U3A, ASCCA, COTA, and local councils including the City of Whittlesea.

Many thanks to ACCAN for supporting this research.

Shaping Connections at RMIT University, which brings together academics and stakeholders from across disciplines, includes Professor Larissa Hjorth, Jacob Sheahan, Associate Professor Bernardo Figueiredo, Professor Diane M. Martin, Professor Mike Reid and Dr Torgeir Aleti.

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Tags: rmit university, Shaping Connectios, social exclusion, technology,

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