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More digital than expected? The 65+ demographic on the Internet

Senior citizens in the 65+ age group use the internet frequently, albeit with different usage patterns compared to other age groups. However, they tend to perceive themselves as having lower digital skills.

Germany is in the midst of a digital transformation, which has gained speed, mainly due to the corona pandemic. This is noticeable in all areas of life, from work to private life. People of all ages are affected by this. But especially for people of higher age, there is often talk of the “disconnected” group. The data from the bidt-SZ-Digitalbarometer, a large-scale, representative survey in Germany, show that just under a third of the people surveyed in the 65+ age group do not use the Internet. At the same time, however, this also means that around 70 % of this age group are online. By comparison, everyone in the younger age groups is online.

A closer look at the onliners in the 65+ age group shows that almost 80 % use the Internet at least almost daily for private purposes. This figure is even higher among the younger ones, at 95 %. However, the intensive users of both age groups differ only slightly when looking at the frequency of internet use in a differentiated way, as the following figure illustrates.

The 65+ age group uses the internet almost as often as other age groups. However, the type of internet use differs in detail. Here, older people rate their digital skills significantly lower.

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However, older people feel significantly more often overwhelmed when dealing with digital devices or the Internet. Thus, one-fifth of the group of frequent users say they are “very often” or “often” overwhelmed, and almost half are “sometimes”. Therefore, in the following, we look at how exactly this group of people uses the Internet, to what extent they have valuable skills for it, and discuss how the digital participation of older people could succeed even better. For this purpose, we always compare the 65+ age group with the younger age group of 14-64-year-olds, who also use the internet “almost daily” or more frequently.

Older internet users, as the figure above shows, are on the Internet similarly often as younger ones. However, they use the Internet differently. While younger people use the Internet in various ways, including streaming content or being active on social media, older people use the Internet more to search for information or communicate with others via email. They are less likely to create or share digital content than younger people. Older people are more passive on the Internet, whereas younger people are more active participants.

Digital competence in comparison

Digital competences are knowledge and skills that enable a person to participate in a digital society (JISC 2014). To make digital competence measurable and comparable, the European reference framework DigComp for digital competence was developed (European Commission 2021). A self-assessment test based on this framework makes it possible to record digital competence based on the five competence areas “handling information and data”, “communication and collaboration”, “creating digital content”, “security”, and “solving problems”. For this purpose, 82 individual statements are asked (Clifford et al., 2020). Since this is a self-assessment test, one’s abilities can be overestimated and underestimated under certain circumstances (see also Dunning-Kruger effect and impostor syndrome).

The bidt-SZ-Digitalbarometer uses this test. Initial results show that people’s self-assessed competences in the five areas vary. This is equally the case in all age groups.

The following tables illustrate the distribution of the scores achieved in the five competency areas for the 65+ age group. On the one hand, they show the proportion of people who fall into one of the four competence levels: low, basic, intermediate and advanced. On the other hand, the bar charts on the right of the table illustrate how the proportions are distributed across the entire spectrum of competence (from 0 to 100 points). This makes it easy to see, for example, whether most people are in the higher or lower score range.

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About two-thirds of the older people achieve medium competence scores in “handling information and data” and “security”. In the area of “solving problems”, however, more than half of the people achieve at most a basic level of competence, and in the area of “creating digital content”, this is even three quarters. Advanced status, i.e. 81 points or more, is achieved by around 9% in “information and data”; the proportions are significantly lower in all other competence areas.

In comparison, most of the 14-64 age group falls into the intermediate skill level in all five skill areas. However, the proportion of those classified in the “advanced” area is significantly higher than in the 65+ age group. There are comparatively many advanced learners, especially in “handling information and data” and “communication and cooperation”. On the other hand, in “solving problems” and “creating digital content”, a not insignificant proportion only achieves a basic level of competence.

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Finally, we would like to examine the specific skills that form the basis of the summarised competence. A quarter of the 65+ age group says they cannot recognise fraudulent emails or can only do so with the help of a third party. Also, 16% say they have little or no knowledge that some information on the Internet is false. The distinction between advertised and unadvertised content is not possible or only possible with help for 30% of older daily internet users. Therefore, some older people do not recognise potential risks on the Internet, although they encounter them daily.

Needs-based opportunities to improve competence

Therefore, needs-based opportunities for improving digital skills must be created for older persons. After all, not every digital skill is relevant to every user. It must also be made clear to learners what the knowledge they are learning can be helpful for. For this reason, low-threshold offers that consider the specific needs, reservations and life circumstances of the 65+ age group are essential.

An important prerequisite for accepting the help offered is that it takes place at eye level and in as personal a format as possible. The bidt-SZ-Digitalbarometer shows that informal learning is much more significant than formal offers. For example, older people from the 65+ group have primarily improved their digital skills with the help of people close to them in the last year. Among other things, peer-to-peer approaches are offered here, in which older people can learn from peers with higher digital skills. Learning opportunities exclusively on the Internet are probably not effective as a sole measure for this age group. The local contact points of the Digital Compass are good examples.

Older people have long since taken the step into the digital world. In further steps, digital competence should be deepened and digital judgement strengthened through suitable offers. Learning offers for older people should deal with everyday practice-oriented topics, strengthen the learners’ confidence in their abilities and promote lifelong learning.

The blog posts published by bidt reflect the views of the authors; they do not reflect the stance of the institute as a whole.