Classroom computers

Nothing is shocking – except the Digital Divide

Image: Stockfresh

5 April 2018

Billy MacInnesGiven the crazy times we’re living in, it’s getting increasingly harder to be startled by things you read. In fact, most of us are fast reaching a point of fatigue where our ability to be shocked by anything is being eroded so thoroughly on a daily, even hourly basis, that we can barely raise an eyebrow at the latest outrage.

Even so, I was moved to raise both eyebrows at the revelation from Age Action that 50% of people in Ireland between the age of 65 and 74 have never been online. Never. To gain a perspective on just how startling that figure is, Age Action says only 16% of people in the same age bracket in the UK have never used the Internet.

Justin Moran, head of advocacy & communications at the organisation, argues (with good reason), that this low level of internet participation at a time when service providers such as banks and utilities are pushing customers to do their business online means “an entire generation of older people is being left behind, cut off from all of the opportunities and benefits of being able to use the Internet”.

And he makes a powerful point that being online can provide “a vital link to friends and families” for many older people, citing research that shows it can reduce depression among older people by up to 30%.

Age Action says there are a number of reasons for older people failing to go online: ageism, the absence of broadband locally a lack of confidence and cost. But many, if not all of those factors, would apply equally to people in the same age bracket in the UK and other EU countries. Indeed, when it comes to cost, it’s worth bearing in mind that the state pension in Ireland of €232 is far more generous than the UK’s £122.30 (€139.54).

So while Age Action has some good arguments, I’m not entirely convinced by them. I wonder if there is an ‘Irish’ dimension to this that means many more older people here don’t have to go online to get the social benefits that people in other countries, such as the UK, might need far more.

In my experience, community and family ties in Ireland are far stronger than the UK. Older people tend to be more engaged with their communities here, they are more social and more active. It’s a smaller country with a smaller population that has a stronger sense of its own identity. The UK is currently going through a period of serious upheaval that is akin to an identity crisis. Ireland is not as fragmented or alienated as parts of the UK. People here make more of an effort to keep in regular contact with their older family members.

In other words, older people here have less need for the Internet and social media to compensate for losing the ordinary human level interactions that they have always relied on.

Unfortunately, as we can see by their increasing efforts to force customers to engage with them online, many service providers and businesses are undermining that social cohesion, however unconsciously. Think again of the community engagement that an older person gets from going into town to pick up their pension, do a bit of shopping, pay a bill or take cash out of the bank. All of those interactions involve conversations with other people, finding out what’s happening in their town or village, talking to young and old in their community and being engaged with ordinary everyday life.

Working people might think it’s far more convenient to do most of that stuff online because they have so many other things to do in their lives and it’s hard for them to get to the bank or the post office during working hours.

But for retired people, that’s not an issue. They have plenty of time. So maybe it’s good that many older people in Ireland don’t feel they have to be online to live their lives in much the same way as they always have. That’s not to say the Internet can’t be a benefit to them but it shouldn’t be something they need to do to replace the human engagement they’ve always been able to enjoy before. Perhaps the most startling fact is that we think it should.

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