OLDER ADULTS AND TECHNOLOGY: MOVING BEYOND THE STEREOTYPES

By Susan Nash, Visiting Scholar at the Stanford Center on Longevity

Figuring out what’s true and what’s not in the online world is a problem for every age group, but may be particularly so for older people. A recent study concluded that in the lead-up to the 2016 presidential election, people over 65 were the most likely of any age group to visit fake news domains and share those links on Facebook.  The age-related conclusion from the Princeton/NYU study was the “most robust, . . .  even when holding other characteristics—including education, ideology, and partisanship—constant.”

So what’s going on with older people?  Why are they falling for, or at least engaging with, misinformation online? And can they be taught to be more discerning consumers of online news?

The Princeton/NYU researchers suggested two possible explanations for their results: (1) older adults “lack[] the level of digital media literacy necessary to reliably determine the trustworthiness of news encountered online”; and (2) “a general effect of aging on memory.”  This last hypothesis refers to research showing that older adults may be more likely than younger ones to believe information if it is repeated often enough, creating an “illusions of truth” effect, even if the repetition is made in order to correct the first false statement.

While these explanations may be part of the story, in fact it’s much more nuanced.  Older Americans have vastly improved their digital savviness in the last two decades but there is a wide range of skill levels within these populations.  And most programs teaching digital literacy to combat fake news are aimed at students and their teachers.  Higher level programming for people well past their school years is much harder to find.

Meanwhile, if the problem lies with declining memory, then it would seem to be almost unsolvable, short of stopping cognitive aging. Cognitive issues, though, can be offset by older adults’ life experience and improved decision-making abilities. Research and experience show that older adults can and are eager to learn new technology, as long as they see a need for it and are taught in ways that build confidence rather than exacerbating the stereotypes of technological incompetence.

1. The Digital Divide Within Older Populations

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.”

2. Older Adults Can Stop and Think

More digital literacy training for older adults on how to spot fake news is one solution.  But if the researchers’ second hypothesis is true –that older adults’ deteriorating memory leads them to be more convinced that false information is true even if they are warned that it is not –is there any hope?

The phenomenon that a corrected statement only becomes more firmly entrenched has been labeled, appropriately enough, “the backfire effect.” And there is reason to be concerned about the difficulties of dissuading older people of their beliefs. In one study, researchers compared younger and older populations by giving both groups 20 myths and 20 facts, followed by information that affirmed the facts and retracted the myths. The study found that adults “65 and over were… comparatively worse” than younger populations “at sustaining their post correction belief that myths are inaccurate,” i.e.,older adults were “particularly susceptible to the ‘re-believing’ of myths” as time progressed.

Even so, the existence of the backfire effect is the subject of ongoing scholarly debate.  Meanwhile, a promising area of research suggests thatwhen people pause and think more analytically, their susceptibility to fake news may decline. In a study that included all age groups, researchers showed both true and false news accounts, in the form of a Facebook post, and asked people to evaluate “how accurate is the claim?” in a headline. They also tested the responders’ tendencies to think analytically rather than going with their gut.  The research suggests that techniques that “prime” people to think with a cooler head when they go online may make them less likely to be persuaded by phony headlines.

Older people have decades of knowledge and experience as consumers, better decision-making abilities than their younger counterparts, more control over their emotions, and an ability to stop and think. With the right training, these skills can translate into better decisions about online content.

3. Stereotyping Doesn’t Help

To assume that cognitive issues are driving the problem of older adults reading and forwarding misinformation may itself contribute to the difficulty in solving it. The pervasive negative stereotypes about older adults and technology create a negative feedback loop that can undermine older people’s confidence and their ability to learn more sophisticated skills. Think of the television commercial showing the elderly couple dumping piles of devices on their startled grandchildren. Or the ubiquitous grandma memes (“Do they deliver emails on Sundays?”) (“I have to open a new window? But it’s the middle of winter!”). Grandpa doesn’t fare much better (“Spent $1200 on new computer. Uses it for solitaire”).

Research confirms that stereotypes about older people and technology – part of today’s ageism – have the same negative effect as other “isms” and  can undermine older adults’ confidence. “[T]he media rhetoric surrounding older adults and technology affects how older adults perceive their own digital literacy and may itself be a barrier to digital technology use by lowering their confidence and depleting their willingness to further develop their digital skills.”

Chad Finlay, Project Director of Tech & Financial Programs at St. Barnabas Senior Services in Los Angeles, has seen these effects firsthand: “The first hurdle in tech classes is to help older people get over their embarrassment at not knowing how to use technology, and the idea that these new tools are just not for them.”

4. Older Adults Will Learn Tech With A Purpose

Researchers report that older adults will learn a new tech skill when they see a reason for it.  Tech tutors in the field rightly tout their successes in responding to specific needs, such as the woman who wanted to learn how to sell her knitting on Etsy, and a traveler asking how to post photos while abroad. Some healthy competition may also work: in 2007 UK researcher Mary Zajicek observed that “[t]here is nobody more determined to master a technology, such as email, than an older person who considers [herself] to be more able (or younger) than a friend that has already achieved it!”

So how do these insights translate into teaching older adults to separate fact from fiction online?  One approach may be to reframe the issue.  Amy Andonian, President and CEO of the Avenidas senior community center in Palo Alto, suggests marketing a class on fighting misinformation as a way to stay up-to-date on an issue constantly in the news. This recommendation lines up directly with research showing thatmost older people have a “strong motivation to learn new skills and to continue living fully through learning.”

Rather than giving in to memes of technologically befuddled senior citizens, a pitch to learn online discernment could depict older people as savvy, with a set of life skills that give them the tools to figure out new problems.  In the lead-up to the 2018 mid-terms, Washington, D.C.-based Newseum tested a Facebook ad campaign against fake news called “Can’t Dupe Me.” The campaign ran for two weeks and had 7.2 million engagements, 67% of which were with people 55 and over.

5. Older Adults Need Time and Practice to Learn New Online Skills

Teaching older adults new tech skills requires time, patience and practice. Whether someone is just learning how to enter a user name and password to get online or is a more sophisticated user,“a well written set of steps are crucial” to remind older people how to use a new skill online.

The ability to practice new skills is also key; ideally, older adults would attend a weekly class and then have their own tablet or laptop to practice on during the week. Some libraries are developing lap-top checkout programs to make this possible. When older adults can review what was done in class and practice with multimedia materials – a “blended workshop” approach – they do better at retaining the new skill.

Senior Planet, a project operated by OATS that provides computer training for older adults around the country, applies these techniques to teaching Internet research skills. Class materials include a checklist of questions for evaluating a website, figuring out the source of the information, and accessing factchecking resources. The checklist, included in a hard-copy notebook of materials to take home and review between classes, encourages readers to acknowledge their own confirmation bias and to avoid “cherry picking” information that confirms their preconceived notions.

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Older people have already shown that they can learn new online skills; an infrastructure for teaching tech to these populations is at least partly in place; and there is a treasure trove of learnings from librarians, community centers like Senior Planet, and others who have provided those early lessons.  Having been so successful at getting older people online, it’s time to use that infrastructure to provide more tools for evaluating the information they find there.


Susan Nash is a Visiting Scholar at the Stanford Center on Longevity, where she is researching how to help older people be better consumers of online information. She was a Fellow at Stanford’s Distinguished Careers Institute from 2017-2018 and is a former partner in the law firm of Munger, Tolles & Olson. 

This is the second in a series of articles addressing the problem of older adults and online disinformation.

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