How to support older people to get on the web

Professor Miriam Lips and Dr Elizabeth Eppel

Effective use of the internet, or digital inclusion, is critical for us all in these unprecedented times. However, seniors belong to the groups in our society more likely to not be digitally included. In a study among 158 people of 65 years and older, we tried to get a better understanding of the digital inclusion/exclusion of this age group. We found seniors are not uniform in this respect and identified seven different types of internet users and non-users. Far from a uniform approach, each type requires different help and support to become more digitally included.

1/ Competent and skilled internet user: These users have an internet connection and multiple digital devices available for use in their home. They have sufficient digital literacy and skills to be able to do anything they want to do online, and they access the internet multiple times a day for a large variety of online activities, such as business transactions, government service consumption and pursuing their hobbies. Typically these users said they could not imagine life without the internet. When they want to do something new online, they use internet search engines and their networks to find out how to do it. These users apply common sense, which means that sometimes they need to be cautious in their internet use. This group needed support with detecting the latest security risks, spam and malware. A trusted website for security alerts could help them with that. The cost of the internet is too high for some: subsidised home internet for those on low incomes would be a solution. And keeping their software and hardware up to date is difficult: they think an easy, accessible help desk where advice is given about updates necessary for security and efficiency purposes would help.

2/ Competent bounded internet user: This group have home internet and usually more than one internet device. They are selective in what they do online. They often rely on family members to introduce them to new uses and show them how they work but once introduced they are enthusiastic adopters. Besides encouragement, these people need an introduction to other apps that would make their lives easier, such as online banking and e-government services. Authoritative sources such as community-based user support groups in public spaces such as libraries would help them. Having case studies available of internet users such as this and how they get the best out of their internet use while keeping themselves safe would be another welcome support. This group would also benefit from having an authoritative source of up-to-date security alerts.

3/ Users with limited competence: This group is cautious and commonly only confident using one device for a limited range of activities. They fear going beyond what they know and give up easily if something unexpected occurs. They often rely on someone close to them, such as a family member or friend, to support their use. Group training courses don’t work for them as they don’t get enough time to practise and become confident in using an application. This group would require encouragement, some one-to-one coaching in a new app of choice, and an easily accessible help desk, at a local library for example. Further useful apps should be gradually introduced and the group’s digital literacy training supported by online help and printed instructions to refer to at home. Examples of how others like them have expanded their internet uses safely would help. They also need authoritative sources of how-to help, such as the earlier suggested community-based user support groups in public spaces, and an authoritative source of security alerts.

4/ Fearful non-users: These people are worried about their online security and privacy as well as their lack of skill to use the internet. They could be tempted by specific internet uses, such as an e-reader for the book lover, but they often perceive the challenges as too big. They indicate that they prefer to use their time to do other things and not to learn something they consider of marginal benefit to them and their lifestyle. Such non-users could benefit from hearing case studies of what internet use might offer them and how similar people have overcome their fear. They would also benefit from a trusted person who can support them through group training sessions or one-on-one training in the home. Such training should be carefully graded with some one-on-one time to answer questions, encourage and move on only after mastery of one app is achieved. Another form of support could come from an easily accessible help desk and having a local community technician available.

5/ Deliberately choose not to use the internet: Members of this group prefer to prioritise their time and do other things. They see little advantage in internet use and often have arranged their own work-around strategy – many have found someone close to them who is willing to do things online for them on request. Through this proxy use they can still benefit from the internet although they are totally reliant on others. One way of supporting this group is through case studies showing the independence gained through internet use and the risks of relying on someone else. Tailored training would be another way of supporting them, together with an easily accessible help desk.

6/ Consider home internet and a digital device unaffordable: This group doesn’t know if there are affordable options available for them or how they would access them. They also don’t know where they could get help. These people could be supported by having subsidised home internet and a subsidy to purchase a digital device suited to seniors on low incomes. Another solution would be to have free home internet connections for all social housing. Support could also be offered through subsidised training, an easily accessible help desk and providing examples of how low-cost internet use has financial benefits, such as using the internet instead of a landline for communication.

7/ Don’t understand the internet and don’t know enough to use digital devices: This group is open to learning but don’t know where to start. They can be supported through tailored advice on home internet services and easy-to-use devices. Also having a local support group connecting these non-users with others new to the digital world could help. Further support could be offered through carefully stepped and graded training, including one-on-one, and an easily accessible help desk.

  • Professor Miriam Lips is the Chair in Digital Government and Dr Elizabeth Eppel is a Senior Research Fellow in the Wellington School of Business and Government at Victoria University of Wellington. The research report is available at

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