Taking the digital literacy hypothesis first, there’s no doubt that many older Americans are behind the curve: most Baby Boomers (1945-1964) were in their teens to early ‘30s when the first IBM personal computers and Apple Macintoshes came on the market, and the pre-Boomer “Silent Generation” was well into adulthood. These generations – “digital immigrants” rather than “digital natives” – have had to build their digital know-how from scratch. But for decades now, AARP, libraries, retirement communities and others have offered workshops, classes and tutoring to help older adults learn the basics of technology. The results of these efforts to bridge the initial “digital divide” are impressive:
That said, the technological skills of older people vary widely by economic status, education and age within older populations themselves – what some have called a “second-level digital divide.” “[E]ven among a group of online older adults, there is significant variation in skills, and this is linked to people’s education, income and autonomy of use, i.e., the freedom to use the technology when and where one wants.”
Of course, there are millions of sophisticated Internet users over 60 who would never forward a “news” story without checking its accuracy. But many people in the older generations have either never developed the necessary skills to make that call or, without office IT departments or ongoing training after retirement to keep them up to date, have fallen behind.
Ironically, getting more older adults online without teaching them more sophisticated digital literacy skills may inadvertently have contributed to the fake news problem; online, a little learning can be a dangerous thing. As an example, one of the recommended methods for checking the source and reliability of a website is to open up another window and Google its source. Stanford researchers describe this technique as “lateral reading.” But the prescription to open another tab can be baffling to many older people: as one recent study noted, “It is nearly impossible for a proficient internet user to appreciate the extent of the challenge posed by ‘opening content in new tabs/windows’ for someone much less internet proficient.”
Bridging this second digital divide and adding on the level of digital literacy necessary to evaluate fake news will require classes and workshops tailored to the particular needs of the group or individual. As Tom Kamber, founder and executive director of Older Adults Technology Services [OATS], puts it, to “we need to meet them where they are.”