Internet usage refers primarily to the online activities of visiting web pages and using email. It is reasonable to expect differences in online activities between different age groups. However, international Internet data frequently excludes age as a variable, making age-based analyses more challenging (Findahl 2004). To accurately evaluate the data that does exist, both general and specific Internet usage needs to be considered when comparing age groups and Internet usage. General usage simply refers to going online. Specific usage refers to what activities are performed online.
General Patterns of Age and Internet Use
The biggest demographic difference in general online usage is between those aged 65+ and those under 65. This pattern holds across a wide array of countries including those with high (e.g., South Korea and Sweden) and low penetration (e.g., China and Mexico) of Internet usage. The pattern in the US is typical, with only 34 percent of those 65 and older engaging in online activities. That number decreases as age increases. Only 26 percent of those aged 70 to 75 were online and only 17 percent of those 76 and older (Pew 2004). In Sweden, 24 percent of those aged 65 to 74 engage in online activities and the figure drops to 7 percent for those over 75 (Findahl 2004). In Germany, only 5 percent of those over 60 are online while in Japan the figure is 15 percent (Chen & Wellman 2003).
Those aged 50 – 64, the baby boomers who represent the next generation of seniors, typically report usage similar to the younger demographics but still represents a smaller percentage of users. Studies in Sweden, the UK, and the US provide the most detailed age-based data. General online usage for those aged 55 – 64 compared to those 35 and under is 49 –72 percent in Sweden, 14 – 89 percent in the UK, and 73 – 80 percent in the US (Chen & Wellman 2003; Kaiser Family Foundation 2005). Internationally, the trend has been for the percentage of those aged 50 – 64 to move closer to the younger demographic percentages. One exception is South Korea. Data there shows an increasing gap between those under 50 and those under 35 (Soe 2002). Still, the number of users aged 50 and older continues to increase, but just not at the same rate as those aged under 35. Globally, the number of online users over the age of 50 continues to increase. In general usage, the difference between those aged under 35 and those aged 50 – 64 is shrinking globally.
Reasons for Age Differences in Internet Use
One possible reason for the age difference in Internet usage is that those aged 50 – 64 have used the Internet as part of their work. Around the world the percentage of people who report accessing the Internet at work has increased steadily (Chen & Wellman 2003). Moreover, those aged over 65 who have not been online say they have never learned how and that it’s too complicated. These two reasons are found across data in different countries (Chen & Wellman 2003; Kaiser Family Foundation 2003).
The digital divide and physical access issues complicate general online usage for those over 65. The digital divide holds that those with low incomes and less education will be unlikely to have and to use online access. An eight-country study found that socioeconomic factors did help to account for a digital divide in China, Germany, Italy, Germany, Mexico, South Korea, the UK, and the US. Education and income appeared to be the most important socio-demographic factors for explaining the global digital divide (Chen & Wellman 2003). The Kaiser study in the US examined online usage by age and both income and education. For those aged over 65, people whose income is below US$20,000 a year are much less likely to go online (15 percent) than those whose income is above US$20,000 (40 percent) or over US$50,000 a year (65 percent). Seniors with a high school degree are far less likely to use the Internet (18 percent) than those who have been to college (45 percent) or have a college degree (60 percent) (Kaiser Family Foundation 2005). Physical access is another concern. Websites and computers are designed by the young and generally do not account for the effects of aging on usage. Keyboards can be difficult to use, small font sizes are an issue, and certain color contrasts are difficult for seniors to see (National Institute on Aging 2001).
Age does account for some differences in Internet activities but not for email use. Internationally, email usage for those online remains high regardless of age groups (Pew 2004; Soe 2002). However, teens are far more likely to add instant messaging (IM) and social network sites such as MySpace to their Internet activities than older Internet users (Noguchi 2006).
More pronounced differences emerge across age groups when specific Internet activities beyond email are examined. Younger Internet users, those aged 12 –28, are more likely to engage in instant messaging (IM), online gaming, downloading music, and downloading videos than those aged 29 and older. Younger Internet users around the world are entertainment-oriented (Dessewffy et al. 2003; Pew 2004; Soe 2002). Those aged 13 –21 prefer IM to email even though they still use email. IM is not popular among older Internet users and decreases rapidly with age (Gonsalves 2005). Those aged 29 – 69 are more likely to use the Internet to engage in online activities that require some capital such as making travel reservations and banking online. Online banking appears frequently as a top online usage of older Internet users globally (Dessewffy et al. 2003; Pew 2004; Soe 2002).
Internet Use for Health Information
Research in the UK and the US has examined the use of health information online by age group. Those aged 50 – 64 and over 65 share an interest in online health information. The relevance of health information searches warrants further attention.
For those aged 50 and older, health information is the most searched topic online. Two studies in the US found that 69 percent of those 50 or older with Internet access have searched for health information (Merck Institute of Aging and Health 2005; Kaiser Family Foundation 2005). The top health topic searched was prescription drugs (37 percent) followed by nutrition or exercise (30 percent). Once again the age divide between those aged 50 – 64 and those 65 and older emerges. Those aged 50 – 64 trust Internet health information (58 percent), which for them is the number one source of health information, while those who are 65 and older do not trust online health information (46 percent), which for them is the fourth most used source of health information (Kaiser Family Foundation 2005). A UK study found similar results, as health was the top online topic for those aged 50 and over (50+ Health 2005). Information seeking in general is consistently near the top of the list of reasons people around the world give for going online. A closer look at the types of information being sought should reveal a similar pattern of older users centering their online searches on health information wherever the Internet is used.
That older users seek health information online should be a special concern. Information providers need to make the information and searches as easy to access and use as possible for older users. A Merck study conducted with the American Federation of Aging Research found significant negative responses from those aged 50 and over who had searched for health information, and 70 percent wanted to learn more about finding reliable health information on the Internet. The two groups have created the Health Compass, a website designed to help people find and assess the credibility of online health information (Merck Institute of Aging and Health 2005). This is one example of how older online users can be helped in their search for health information.
Globally, those aged 50 – 64 have general online usage patterns similar to the younger age groups, but Internet usage drops dramatically for those aged 65 and older. As Internet users age, their specific usage shifts from entertainment (e.g., downloading music) to capital expenditures (e.g., banking and travel) and a concern for health. The emphasis on health information increases as a focus for Internet users as they age. According to predictions, Internet usage by those aged 50 and over will continue to rise around the world and spread to the higher age brackets as more computer-literate people age. Internet content providers would be wise to do more to adapt content and page layout to older users. Internationally, those aged 50 and older are a growing audience and market for online information and services.
- 50+ Health (2005). 50+ statistics. At www.50plushealth.co.uk/index.cfm?articleid=1502, accessed July 28, 2006.
- Chen, W., & Wellman, B. (2003). Charting and bridging digital divides: Comparing socioeconomic, gender, life stage, and rural–urban Internet access and use in eight countries. At http:// www.amd.com/us-en/assets/content_type/DownloadableAssets/FINAL_REPORT_CHARTING_ DIGI_DIVIDES.pdf, accessed August 5, 2007.
- Dessewffy, T., Fabian, Z., Galacz, A., Gayer, Z., Medgyes, M., Ret, Z., & Rigler, A. (2003). Mapping the digital future: Hungarian society and the Internet. At www.worldinternetproject.net/ publishedarchive/a687.pdf, accessed August 5, 2007.
- Findahl, O. (2004). Swedes and the Internet year 2003. At www.worldinternetproject.net/publishedarchive/SwedenInternet2003.pdf, accessed August 5, 2007.
- Gonsalves, A. (2005). Study: IM surpasses e-mail among teens, young adults. At http://internetweek.cmp.com/news/173601785, accessed August 1, 2006.
- Kaiser Family Foundation (2005). E-health and the elderly: How seniors use the Internet for health information. At www.kff.org/entmedia/upload/e-Health-and-the-Elderly-How-Seniors-Use-theInternet-for-Health-Information-Key-Findings-From-a-National-Survey-of-Older-AmericansSurvey-Report.pdf, accessed July 28, 2006.
- Merck Institute of Aging and Health (2005). Boomers, seniors use internet for health information but question credibility. At www.seniorjournal.com/NEWS/Health/5 – 06 –20Web4Health.htm, accessed July 28, 2006.
- National Institute on Aging (2001). Making your web site senior friendly. At www.nih.gov/icd/od/ocpl/resources/wag/documents/checklist.pdf#search, accessed July 29, 2006.
- Noguchi, S. (2006). Teens turn away from e-mail. At www.mercurynews.com/mld/mercurynews/living/education/14806122.htm, accessed August 1, 2006.
- Pew (2004). Older Americans and the Internet. At www.pewinternet.org/pdfs/PIP_Seniors_ Online_2004.pdf, accessed July 28, 2006.
- Soe, Y. (2002). The digital divide: An analysis of Korea’s Internet diffusion. At www3.georgetown.edu/grad/cct/academics/theses/YouneiSoe.pdf, accessed August 5, 2007.
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