Knowledge management specialist Martin Fowkes reports
Internet use among elderly people is higher in Scandinavian countries, the Netherlands and Luxembourg than it is in the UK. Why is this and why does it matter?
I have recently been involved in the Digital Technology in Later Life project and have become aware that those who are not online are increasingly at a disadvantage. Not only are the best savings rates and discounts available online, but digital provision of public services is starting to become the default option, and alternatives will become harder to use and probably less efficient. Providers of both public and private sector services seem to assume everyone is online now – and this is not the case. It is ironic that the more
vulnerable members of society are those most likely to benefit from some of the online services, but are most likely to be offline.
There have been several projects and reports over the past few years that have looked at the issue, and
some good work has already been done. The latest report on this subject is Nudge or Compel? Can behavioural economics tackle the digital exclusion of older people? from the International Longevity Centre – UK. This contains many useful ideas but it struck me that there was little mention of what was happening in other countries – surely this isn’t just an issue in the UK?
A bit of internet research shows that other countries do have similar issues. The report ‘Older Australians and the Internet: bridging the digital divide’ highlights many of the same barriers found in the UK and contains similar recommendations to those in UK reports. The Centre for Ageing Research and Development in Ireland (CARDI) produced a report on ‘Internet use and older people’ which focuses more on what older people use the internet for, as well as noting some of the barriers.
The statistics I’ve found on the internet need to be treated with some caution, as they are not all based on the same questions or periods. Different countries have also used different age ranges, but the broad findings are probably sound. Here are some examples of what I’ve found:
- The Eurostat survey covers internet usage in households and by individuals for EU countries,
but frustratingly only covers people up to the age of 74.
- In the UK, 64% of people aged over 65 have no access to the internet, but in Norway only 18% of people aged between 65 and 74 don’t have access. And the corresponding figure for people aged between 75 and 79 is 40%, a reduction from 60% in 2011. Currently 74% of Norwegians aged between 65 and 74 years use a computer.
- In the Netherlands, 60% of 65 to 75-year-olds were active on the internet in 2011, nearly twice as many as in 2005. The gap between older and younger internet users is rapidly narrowing.
- Eurostat shows that 18% of 65-74 year olds used online banking across the UK in 2010. These
levels are well below those for countries such as Norway (54%), Sweden (45%), the Netherlands (41%), or Denmark (40%).
- Internet usage among Australians aged 65 years and over has increased significantly – from 30% in 2007 to 40% in 2009
And here are a few examples of actions being taken that may increase use of the internet:
- In Finland it is the legal right of every citizen to have broadband, and 96% of the population was connected by 2010.
- In Denmark legislation has been proposed to make digital access of many public services mandatory by Nov 2014.
- Turkey and Russia have announced plans to provide all citizens with an email address – although this may be more to do with nudging people to use national services rather than foreign ones.
As I work in knowledge management, I’m always keen to see reuse of good ideas and learning from
previous experience. Far too often, people set out to solve a problem without first checking to see if anyone else has already had a go. In particular, I suspect we don’t look hard enough for solutions from other countries. In 2006 the EU produced an action plan for ‘Ageing well in the Information Society’ and the Nominet Trust report Ageing and the use of the internet refers to some European-funded projects, but I
do not know if these are related.
We should be asking why it is that elderly people in Scandinavian countries are making more use of the
internet than they are in the UK. There may be cultural or other differences that explain the gap, but there may be some solutions that we can adopt/adapt and apply within the UK. Hopefully we can benefit from looking at what has worked or not worked in Norway for example.
Although we know why this matters, I don’t believe we know the reasons why the UK lags behind some
other countries. And if we don’t ask, we won’t find out.