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Switched on

 

COVID-19 is fundamentally changing community and social life around the world and nowhere is this more pronounced than in the way active seniors are interacting with online technologies.

On March 15 last year the president of the NSW U3A Network, Laurene Mulcahy, sent out a concerning message to member networks.

Her bulletin warned each U3A association to “carefully consider the risks that may accrue from one of their members, who has unknowingly contracted COVID-19, participating in a U3A activity” and reminded them that they may “choose to highlight concerns that a returning traveller may have on the health of others should they be carrying the virus”.

On March 19, Mulcahy’s ‘special alert’ advice centred on the importance of a phone tree to maintain contact with older members in the event they were feeling unduly isolated due to the pandemic health alerts.

Four days later and Mulcahy’s report contained a piece by a member sharing his thoughts on the lessons learned when he was in Nigeria during The Western African Ebola virus epidemic where 28,646 people were infected and 11,323 died.

But fast forward to the same month this year and just like initial warnings about the Australian economy, Mulcahy’s special bulletins had taken on a decidedly more optimistic tone.

Not only were her messages reflecting on how U3A activities were getting back to normal while meeting the requirements of current COVID-19 restrictions but they also praised the use of video meeting tools such as Zoom in providing what Mulcahy referred to as a “stay at home” option for presentations and other activities.

But U3A is not the only group of active seniors who are changing the way they use the internet to communicate after life in lockdown.

A new report by the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) shows Australia’s COVID-19 restrictions have led to more active seniors using digital communications, including social media apps, than ever before.

The Communications and Media in Australia: How we communicate interactive report showed the number of people aged 75 and over who use social media doubled from 18 per cent in June 2019, to 41 per cent in June 2020.

The findings also revealed that for older Australians, emailing had more than doubled (increasing from 37 per cent in 2019 to 81 per cent in 2020) while the use of messaging and calling apps and mobile texting had also increased significantly.

“Older people increased their online activities during the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly for communication and entertainment. They were more likely to have just started or increased video conferencing and consuming video online,” the report noted.

The results suggest that older people are engaging in a notably broader range of online activities across different devices and connecting to the internet more than ever before. They also prove that mobile phones and tablets – rather than desktop computers – are now this age group’s main gateway to the internet.

 

What it all means

ACMA Chair Nerida O’Loughlin says her organisation’s research shows that the digital divide between younger and older Australians has narrowed, with this trend accelerated by the desire to maintain contact with friends and family during lockdowns.

“After years of gradual drift towards communications and social media apps, we have now seen a more pronounced shift in the way Australians connect. More people are relying on social networking apps and mobile communication services like Facebook Messenger and Zoom to stay connected.”

O’Loughlin’s comments are supported by a report from the Global Centre for Modern Ageing (GCMA), released last year, that investigated the way older Australians used technology, their confidence in it and how they were using it.

The GCMA survey found that while many respondents already had some experience with technology prior to COVID-19, 23 per cent of Australians aged 60 or older began using technology that is new to them (such as an iPad, smartphone apps, or video calls) since the pandemic started.

While showing that older Australians were open to trial and new usage, the survey also showed that those in this age group were displaying an increased confidence in their use of technology as a result of the pandemic.

Thirty-four per cent of those aged 60-plus reported feeling ‘more confident’ with technology than before the COVID-19 outbreak while a further 46 per cent said their confidence had not increased, because they were ‘already confident’.

Among the 23 per cent of over 60s who used a technology for the first time, 56 per cent claimed they were now feeling more confident with technology.

 

Activities being done online

So what are Australia’s active seniors doing online? ACMA research shows that, in parallel with their uptake of digital devices, more older people are using the internet for a wider variety of activities and tasks.

In May, ACMA released the findings of its The Digital Lives of Older Australians report which looked at how the way active seniors use of online technologies had changed between June 2017 and June 2020.

The findings showed that almost all older people now use email, while banking, viewing video content, and buying goods and services online have increased substantially over the previous four years, to become relatively common behaviours for this age group.

The results showed that 95 per cent of those aged 65-plus used the internet to email in the six months to June 2020 (eight per cent more than during the same period in 2017).

The numbers of active seniors using online banking tools also increased between the two periods, rising from 59 per cent in 2017 to 77 per cent in 2020.

The most pronounced change in usage occurred in online shopping with 20 per cent more active seniors going online to shop in 2020 than four years earlier.

The previous four years had also seen a marked increase in the take-up of online entertainment among older age-groups, the results show.

 

Streaming services also better utilised

However, it wasn’t only for everyday tasks where online usage was going up.

The results showed that the proportion of those using online subscription services, catch-up television, online platforms like YouTube, and free video content has also risen considerably since our pre-pandemic years.

The report shows that the proportion of older people streaming content on devices has more than doubled since 2017, with seven in ten streaming content at June 2020 compared to the same period four years earlier.

Their use of subscription or pay-per-view services also increased in 2020, to 61 per cent, up from 36 per cent in the corresponding period in 2017.

ABC iView remained the leading catch-up TV service, accessed by 87 per cent of Australians aged 65-plus, followed by SBS On Demand which was accessed by 59 per cent of those in this age group.

Interestingly, while their behaviours have changed considerably, the research shows older people’s views of the digital world remain circumspect.

ACMA’s various reports say that the majority of people in this demographic continue to feel overwhelmed by technological change, and may be largely unmotivated to find out more.

“Their engagement in online environments appears to have been prompted by perceived (or actual) necessity, rather than by seeing benefits in ‘going online’ or feeling confident about doing so.

“This research suggests that older people may be feeling somewhat ‘forced’ online – a situation that may have been accelerated by the pandemic, but also by the increasing digitisation of life in general.”

ACMA says that this highlights the importance of supporting active senior’s digital literacy and providing them with the skills to navigate what can be confusing and potentially risky environments.

“In this way, not only will they use the internet, but they can engage with the digital world safely and confidently.”

 

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