Seniors Are Saying No to High Tech

Digital communications devices are expensive and not intuitive or welcoming to older users

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The digital revolution may be changing the way we live and work. But large numbers of older Americans are not going online, using smartphones, or even participating in the benefits of electronic healthcare tools specifically designed to help them.

The costs of not participating in electronic communications are growing. Government and the private sector are shifting to online tools as their dominant form of public communication. It saves time and money, and provides more responsive public services. But surveys of Internet and technology use show that many, if not most, older consumers are bypassed with online communication.

[See 10 Great Tech Products for Seniors.]

Earlier this year, for example, the U.S. Social Security Administration said it would stop sending paper statements to Americans explaining their Social Security benefits. Instead, such statements would be available online. As part of a broader government policy, Social Security will also be ending paper-based benefit checks by May 2013.

The Social Security Administration says growing use of the Internet will allow it to save money on paper-based statements and still meet public needs. However, while the agency has stopped mailing out its annual statement of benefits, it has yet to begin offering this information online. And an agency spokesman says privacy rules prevent the agency from even measuring how many people visit its website. The agency knows that total page views on the site are rising, the spokesman said, but it is not allowed to collect specifics on how many beneficiaries are actually using the site.

The most probable answer, however, is "not many." According to the Pew Research Center's Internet & American Life Project, only 42 percent of Americans age 65 and older go online at all. Of these, even smaller percentages use the Internet to research information on specific topics. These numbers are rising, but still are roughly half the level of younger Americans. The Social Security Administration does say it plans to provide paper-based statements to older people, but has not yet spelled out the timing of this effort.

Laurie Orlov is a former Forrester Research analyst who started her own company, Aging in Place Technology Watch, to research and provide consulting advice about seniors and technology. While there have been some gains in technology use by older consumers, price and complexity are barriers to larger gains, as is seniors' comfort with familiar ways of doing things.

[See 5 Ways to Join the Personal Technology Party.]

"People are pretty inflexible" about technology use, she says, "so there's a chance those numbers won't improve much." Is it fair to describe seniors as the lost generation in terms of technology? "I think they are," she says.

Orlov can rattle off an impressive list of the costs to seniors of not being online, from paying extra for airline tickets by using a reservations agent, to missing out on online coupons and other digital bargains, to becoming isolated from grandchildren and other family members who increasingly rely on digital devices to communicate.

Baby boomers, by contrast, are using new technology at rates nearly equal to younger consumers. They are likely to continue such habits as they join the ranks of senior citizens, and it will be this trend that will firmly establish electronic communication and commerce as a senior activity.

For now, Orlov says, she's extremely optimistic that computers and hand-held tablets and other devices will become easier to use and more friendly to inexperienced and older consumers alike.

[See 10 Ways to Get Americans Spending Again.]

Ingenious "apps" and uses for smartphones and other mobile communications devices are driving broad gains in consumer adoption. Orlov thinks the improvements in user interfaces and ease-of-use gains in these mass markets will help all consumers, including seniors. "I think technology is becoming multi-age friendly," she says.

"We're at the beginning of a remarkable time," she says. "It's going to get better because it can. That's the nature of technology."

Orlov has tabulated senior use of new technologies by culling Pew's Internet use surveys. Here are the current use levels, by age, for 11 digital devices and related activities:

Percentages of Americans Using Digital Technologies
Category All Consumers Boomers 50-64 Seniors 65+
Go online 79% 78% 42%
Use search engine daily 59% 52% 37%
Use video sharing site 71% 54% 31%
Look online for health information 59% 58% 29%
Use social networking site 61% 47% 26%
Have a cellphone 85% 85% 58%
Have a smartphone 35% 24% 11%
Make Internet calls 24% 19% 18%
Have an E-reader 12% 13% 6%
Have a tablet 8% 8% 2%
Have a mobile health "app" 9% 6% 5%
Source: Laurie Orlov, Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project

Twitter: @PhilMoeller