Staying connected: the pandemic highlights the need for more internet training
The Covid-19 pandemic has increased reliance on digital technology, widening the gap between internet users and non-users. This underlines the case for internet access as part of the Social Guarantee. What’s urgent now is commitment by government and adequate funding to make it happen – especially for older people.
When the country locked down, in March 2020, more than two million older adults had never used the internet and consequently had fewer opportunities to shop, access services, find information and maintain their social relationships. Many more had some online experience but lacked the essential digital skills to communicate and collaborate online, needing help to connect a device to a Wifi network.
The need for digital skills and devices, cost implications and internet safety concerns can make internet uptake daunting. For some individuals, physical, sensory and dexterity issues can also create barriers to internet use. Local technical support may be difficult to find, and basic ICT training is less readily available for older adults outside the workforce. Age UK last year found that 79% of older adults, who said they would like to use the internet more, cited their lack of digital skills as a barrier. When older adults are communicating online, some may lack the confidence to experiment with new applications. A supported housing scheme resident commented:
"…There’s loads of things to look at on the internet. Educational, interesting… . Oh, I could sit for hours once I get the hang of it….I want to do Facebook and emails, that sort of thing, just to keep in contact."
Familial and friendship networks were put on hold in response to Covid-19 and face to face contact reduced. Supported housing and care home residents were particularly impacted. An older housing scheme resident, with a visual impairment, described a period of lockdown as follows:
"The door closed and that was it. Of course you can’t look out of the window if you can’t see, can’t watch TV because I didn’t have one, so the door shut, the room shut and that was me for the day. I had nothing to do and nobody to talk to. After 5 o’clock at night you were in your room. If I opened the door and ventured into the corridor, a voice came from the darkness – Go back in your room."
There is a connection between loneliness and social isolation, ill-health and cognitive decline in older age and together, these factors can affect quality of life. Online social contact can help to reduce loneliness but internet access is not always provided in older adults’ housing.
In the early 2000s, a major policy focus for the UK government was the social and digital inclusion of potentially marginalised groups, including older adults. More recently, funding for further education has been reduced and skills for the workplace have been prioritised. Informal ICT classes, popular with older adults, are less often available and, while digital inclusion continues to be a public policy goal, increased public funding could help to close the digital divide.
Investment in ICT skills, laptop loan programmes, free data and dongles and personalised training can promote internet uptake among digitally marginalised groups. Online and telephone ICT training can provide Covid-safe learning environments and Digital Champions can offer informal tuition. Lifelong learning can continue into retirement and internet uptake can play a part in meeting the basic human need for self-development and social connection.
Good social networks support resilience to challenging life events and research last year indicated that 63% of adults, temporarily quarantining at home, said they could not have coped without digital technology. 51% of respondents said the internet helped them to feel less alone and 49% said they used digital tools and websites to support their physical and mental health.
The internet is not a solution for everyone but many have found it invaluable. In 2016, internet access was recognised by the United Nations as a human right and the United Nations, Decade of Healthy Ageing (2021-2030) highlights the need to ensure that communities foster the abilities of older people. In a changing digital landscape, older adults’ internet use can support their agency and social relationships, while enabling them to maintain social distance. The pandemic has highlighted an urgent need to make internet access and skills available to all, irrespective of age, circumstances and the ability to pay.
Jill Wales is an ICT tutor and a member of the research grouping, Ageing: Better Life in Later Life, Department of Nursing, Midwifery and Health, Northumbria University.