By Aaron Smith
America’s seniors have historically been late adopters to the world of technology compared to their younger compatriots, but their movement into digital life continues to deepen, according to newly released data from the Pew Research Center. In this report, we take advantage of a particularly large survey to conduct a unique exploration not only of technology use between Americans ages 65 or older and the rest of the population, but within the senior population as well.
Two different groups of older Americans emerge. The first group (which leans toward younger, more highly educated, or more affluent seniors) has relatively substantial technology assets, and also has a positive view toward the benefits of online platforms. The other (which tends to be older and less affluent, often with significant challenges with health or disability) is largely disconnected from the world of digital tools and services, both physically and psychologically.
As the internet plays an increasingly central role in connecting Americans of all ages to news and information, government services, health resources, and opportunities for social support, these divisions are noteworthy—particularly for the many organizations and individual caregivers who serve the older adult population. Among the key findings of this research:
Six in ten seniors now go online, and just under half are broadband adopters
In April 2012 the Pew Research Center found for the first time that more than half of older adults (defined as those ages 65 or older) were internet users. Today, 59% of seniors report they go online—a six-percentage point increase in the course of a year—and 47% say they have a high-speed broadband connection at home. In addition, 77% of older adults have a cell phone, up from 69% in April 2012.
But despite these gains, seniors continue to lag behind younger Americans when it comes to tech adoption. And many seniors remain largely unattached from online and mobile life—41% do not use the internet at all, 53% do not have broadband access at home, and 23% do not use cell phones.
Younger, higher-income, and more highly educated seniors use the internet and broadband at rates approaching—or even exceeding—the general population; internet use and broadband adoption each drop off dramatically around age 75
Seniors, like any other demographic group, are not monolithic, and there are important distinctions in their tech adoption patterns, beginning with age itself. Internet use and broadband adoption among seniors each fall off notably starting at approximately age 75. Some 68% of Americans in their early 70s go online, and 55% have broadband at home. By contrast, internet adoption falls to 47% and broadband adoption falls to 34% among 75-79 year olds.
In addition, affluent and well-educated seniors adopt the internet and broadband at substantially higher rates than those with lower levels of income and educational attainment:
- Among seniors with an annual household income of $75,000 or more, 90% go online and 82% have broadband at home. For seniors earning less than $30,000 annually, 39% go online and 25% have broadband at home.
- Fully 87% of seniors with a college degree go online, and 76% are broadband adopters. Among seniors who have not attended college, 40% go online and just 27% have broadband at home.
Older adults face a number of hurdles to adopting new technologies
Older adults face several unique barriers and challenges when it comes to adopting new technologies. These include:
Physical challenges to using technology: Many seniors have physical conditions or health issues that make it difficult to use new technologies. Around two in five seniors indicate that they have a “physical or health condition that makes reading difficult or challenging” or a “disability, handicap, or chronic disease that prevents them from fully participating in many common daily activities”. This group is significantly less likely than seniors who do not face these physical challenges to go online (49% vs. 66%), to have broadband at home (38% vs. 53%), and to own most major digital devices.
Skeptical attitudes about the benefits of technology: Older adults who do not currently use the internet are divided on the question of whether that lack of access hurts them or not. Half of these non-users (49%) agree with the statement that “people lacking internet access are at a real disadvantage because of all the information they might be missing,” with 25% agreeing strongly. But 35% of these older non-internet users disagree that they are missing out on important information—and 18% of them strongly disagree.Difficulties learning to use new technologies: A significant majority of older adults say they need assistance when it comes to using new digital devices. Just 18% would feel comfortable learning to use a new technology device such as a smartphone or tablet on their own, while 77% indicate they would need someone to help walk them through the process. And among seniors who go online but do not currently use social networking sites such as Facebook or Twitter, 56% would need assistance if they wanted to use these sites to connect with friends or family members.
Once seniors join the online world, digital technology often becomes an integral part of their daily lives
Despite some of these unique challenges facing the older adult population when it comes to technology, most seniors who become internet users make visiting the digital world a regular occurrence. Among older adults who use the internet, 71% go online every day or almost every day, and an additional 11% go online three to five times per week.
These older internet users also have strongly positive attitudes about the benefits of online information in their personal lives. Fully 79% of older adults who use the internet agree with the statement that “people without internet access are at a real disadvantage because of all the information they might be missing,” while 94% agree with the statement that “the internet makes it much easier to find information today than in the past.”
Seniors differ from the general population in their device ownership habits
Few older adults are smartphone owners: More than half of all Americans now have a smartphone, but among older adults, adoption levels sit at just 18%. Additionally, smartphone ownership among older adults has risen only modestly in recent years, from 11% in April 2011. A significant majority of older adults (77%) do have a cell phone of some kind, but by and large these tend to be more basic devices.
Among older adults, tablets and e-book readers are as popular as smartphones: Among the general public, smartphones are much more common than either tablet computers or e-book readers, such as Kindles or Nooks. But tablets, e-book readers, and smartphones are each owned by an identical 18% of older adults. In fact, the proportion of older adults who own either a tablet or an e-book reader is actually larger than the proportion owning a smartphone. Some 27% of seniors own a tablet, an e-book reader, or both, while 18% own a smartphone.
27% of older adults use social networking sites such as Facebook, but these users socialize more frequently with others compared with non-SNS users
Today 46% of online seniors (representing 27% of the total older adult population) use social networking sites such as Facebook, and these social network adopters have more persistent social connections with the people they care about.
Some 81% of older adults who use social networking sites say that they socialize with others (either in person, online, or over the telephone) on a daily or near-daily basis. Among older adults who go online but do not use social networking sites, that figure is 71%; and for those who are not online at all, it is 63%.
Go to the PewResearch Website to view the rest of the report. Or to download a pdf of the full report.