The Digital Lives of Older UK and Irish Citizens

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Adrian Smyth takes a look at the latest Media Use and Attitudes report published by the UK communications regulator Ofcom and hypothesises about how the findings might translate to Ireland.

The headline from Ofcom’s recent Adults’ Media Use and Attitudes report is that older people in the UK (aged 65 and over) are “embracing smart and social technologies” in increasing numbers. However, as always with statistics around older people and new technologies while they often appear to show quite dramatic shifts in use, behaviour and attitudes, base-line figures are often lower than those relating to other, younger, age groups. Also, if consumer choice ‘options’ are increasingly being coalesced around the ‘smart’ end of the technology market, then older people may have no option but to “embrace” them.

Devices and Social Technologies: The bald facts of this latest report show nevertheless that use of smartphones by older people in the UK increased from 28% in 2015, to 39% in 2016. Furthermore, use by the older age group generally regarded as furthest from technology’s reach (the over-75s) has almost doubled – up from 8% in 2015 to 15% in 2016. To put it another way, non-use of smartphones by this group has decreased from 92% in 2015 to 85% in 2016 – so they still appear to be the age group occupying technology’s margins.

Still, and to be playful with the data for a moment, if we imagine this trend of a 7% year-on-year increase in gravitation towards smartphones to continue, we are only 4 years away from 50% of people aged over-75 using smartphones, and just over 10 years away from 100% saturation for this age group. So in this imagining, those turning 65 this year are likely to be completely smartphone ‘enabled’ by the year 2027 – which looks impressive from the perspective of 2017. The problem even with this whimsy is that when the ‘smart’ revolution rolls on, as surely it must, there might yet be some other technology ‘lag’ confronting the 75 year-old in 2027. Whatever about predictions though, the fact that the smartphone has, at this moment, moved into a critical position as a near-universal ‘portal’ device for access to the Internet is perhaps a more sensible focus for attention.

That UK mobile phone users aged 65-74 are twice as likely in 2016 compared to 2015 to nominate their phone as the device they would miss most however is interesting and offers a glimpse into the contemporary personal digital worlds of older people and how they, like younger generations, may becoming more attached to them. Also of interest is that for the first time, ownership – if not necessarily use – of tablet computers amongst the 65-74 age group has tipped over the 50% mark. Not unconnected perhaps with the more widespread use of more portable devices is the simultaneous announcement that there have been “significant” increases in the numbers of Internet users aged 75 and over with a social media profile – “41% in 2016 compared to 19% in 2015”.

‘Newer Users’ of the Internet: Moving on to the more general question of Internet use, ‘newer users’ – defined here as “those who first went online five years ago” tend to be “older, less confident, and use the Internet less than established users”. Interestingly, they are “more likely to only use a smartphone to go online; 21% of ‘newer users’ are those aged 75 and over.

‘Narrow Users’ of the Internet: Helpfully, this study further breaks down Internet users into what it terms ‘narrow users’ – those who say they go online less often than every day. Here, those aged 65 and over in the UK are more likely than average to be ‘narrow users’ (44% of 65-74s and 51% of over-75s); they are also less likely to watch ‘on-demand’ television and ‘catch-up’ services, and they are not likely to watch content via a mobile phone or online.

Non-Users of the Internet: One in three adults aged 65-74 in the UK are non-users of the Internet, as are a majority of those aged 75 and over (56%). The most common reason given for non-use of the Internet was that respondents felt that it was “not for people like them” or they simply didn’t see a need for the Internet in their lives (43%). Interestingly however, nearly four in ten of non-users say they have asked someone to use the Internet on their behalf in the last year. This last point is of particular interest in the research of this author.

Transferring the Data: A Thought Experiment: There are details in the UK data – such as around behaviours (i.e. use/non-use of on-demand television services; recruitment of assistance with Internet access) which would be useful to know of Ireland but which simply do not exist with any sense of longitudinal consistency in Irish statistical enquiries. The most consistent survey of technology use in Ireland, the Information Society Statistics – Households of the Central Statistics Office is a particularly valuable source for rates of Internet access, frequency of Internet use, type of device used, classifications of Internet activities, online security – usefully sub-divided along various demographic categories.  But the CSO has priorities other than media research and cannot be expected to delve too deeply into this area.

So In the absence of directly-comparable Irish data, how might these current U.K. findings transfer to an Irish situation? For myriad social, cultural and commercial reasons we might assume there to be at least some commonalities between the UK and Ireland which might support at least the spirit of this thought experiment. So to break down the findings of the Ofcom report further, and then transpose them to the Irish situation, the picture look like this:

UK

  • 17.8% of the total U.K. population (total = 65.1 million) is aged 65 and over – that’s just over 11.5 million people.
  • As one in three adults in this age group declare as non-users of the Internet, this comes to just over 3.8 million people (c.33% of people aged 65 and over).
  • As four in ten of these people say they have asked for assistance in using the Internet in the last year, then there are just over 1.5 million people in the UK dependent on others for accessing the Internet (c.2% of the total population).

So, now translating this scenario to the Irish situation – and based on the latest Irish population statistics (CSO, 2016), it goes like this:

Ireland

  • 13.39% of the total Irish population (total = 4.76 million) is aged 65 and over – that’s just over 637,000 people.
  • If one in three adults in this age group declare themselves as non-users of the Internet, this comes to just over 212,000 people (c.33.3% of people aged 65 and over).
  • If four in ten of these people were to say they have asked for assistance in using the Internet in the last year, then there may be around 85,000 people aged 65 and over in Ireland dependent on others for accessing the Internet (c.1.8% of the total population).

That Ireland is almost on a par with the U.K. when it comes to rates of non-use and assistance-seeking around Internet access amongst our older populations suggests there may be common grounds for fostering greater cooperation between our countries in terms of building common strategies for bridging the gaps between Internet use and non-use; especially strategies which may seek to more fully understand the nature and operation of extant and (what must be) informal networks of digital assistance. In this regard at least, there may be more that unites than divides us.

Adrian Smyth is a PhD candidate with the Dublin Institute of Technology School of Media where he is currently researching the digital lives of older people in Ireland.

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