Still Divided: Technology and Inequality

Jasmin Tahmaseb McConatha, PhD
JTahmasebMcConatha@wcupa.edu

Michael J. Corcoran, MA
MC671887@wcupa.edu
West Chester University of Pennsylvania

One way of maintaining a sense of competence as we age is to become technologically skilled. In the past, Internet users have been younger, more educated, and affluent people who enjoy economic and social resources (Carpenter & Buday, 2007). That situation is changing. Older adults (over 65) are becoming increasingly connected. More than 50% of older Americans now use the Internet. The Pew Research Center reports that 64% of older Americans own a smartphone, a larger percentage (77%) has a cellphone, and 42% own a tablet. Another poll in April 2012 showed over 50% adults over 65 reported using the Internet (Older Adults and Technology Use, 2014; Mobile Technology Fact Sheet, 2013).

Older Americans are using technology for multiple reasons: to network with family and friends, send or receive email, connect on social media sites like Facebook and Twitter, make travel or entertainment arrangements or bank. For over 65% of older adults, the Internet is a place to gather current information on health related concerns. Studies have indicated that there are many benefits associated with computer use in later adulthood. These include better self-rated health, greater functional independence, fewer depressive symptoms, and better cognitive functioning. Computer use has also been found to increase feelings of social integration and prevent loneliness (Gatto & Tak, 2008; Zickuhr & Madden, 2012). While elders have made considerable progress in social media, they continue to lag behind other age groups when it comes to connectivity; over 41% of them still do not use the Internet. The Pew Research group reports that 53% of older Americans do not have Internet access at home (Zickuhr & Madden, 2012). Lack of technological access can lead to feelings of isolation and alienation from mainstream society, a significant concern in later life.

Indeed, a new “digital divide” is emerging. The “digital divide” refers to the gap that exists between those who have access to technological connections and those who do not. Technological connectors include cellphones, TV, personal computers, and access to the Internet. The nature of this divide is complex. People may have a degree of connectivity, a cell phone for example, but lack broadband access at home. Half of older adults in the United States find themselves in this category. Age, however, is not the only factor that determines access to connectivity. Age interacts with economic factors, health factors, and often ethnicity and immigration status to compound connectivity issues. The digital divide is expanded by ethnicity and socio-economic status. Pearson (2002) observed that there are significant disparities between the access opportunities of the well to do and the poor and ethnic groups. Poverty rates are twice as high among older Blacks and Latinos compared to the U.S. population as a whole. Thirty one percent of Blacks and 46.5% of Latino elders are at the bottom 23% bracket of annual income (Costa, 2012). Fifty percent of African-Americans and 60% of Hispanics do not have Internet access at home; the percentages are even higher for minority elders. The consequences are dire for those in low socioeconomic status; only 40% of households with income below $25,000 have Internet access at home, whereas 93% of households with incomes exceeding $100,000 have Internet access at home (Crawford, 2011).

While many individuals have cellphones that provide them the possibility to connect to various electronic resources, the lack of computer and Internet access is concerning. Smartphones do provide Internet access, but this access does not match connectivity with a computer. In many current cultures, many of our affairs (paying bills, filling out necessary forms, applying for jobs or benefits) are relatively easy to conduct with a computer. The same tasks are difficult or impossible when using a cellphone or without computer access. Given these realities, it is likely that households without Internet connections are further disadvantaged with regard to health care, employment opportunities, educational opportunities, and even entertainment. In addition, poor access to technological connections can result in or an increase in social marginalization. This leaves individuals who may already be in a disadvantaged or marginalized situation—elders, immigrants, minorities, and those living in poverty—further disconnected from mainstream society.

Beyond its utilitarian features, technology provides individuals with a social outlet. As technology grows, more and more people are using social media to stay connected (Warschauer, 2004). Older adults often have dispersed families with whom they can maintain regular connections if they have the necessary technological skills and access to a computer. Unfortunately many do not. Progress has been made, but the digital divide is still a reality. At some local libraries a line of people of all ages routinely wait for 30 minutes of online access.

It is clear that in an increasingly connected world, technological access has an impact on the health and wellbeing of people of all ages and backgrounds. Accordingly, research and outreach efforts need to be directed towards closing the digital divide.

References

Carpenter, B.D., & Buday, S. (2007). Computer use among older adults in a naturally occurring retirement community. Computers in Human Behavior, 23, 3012-3024.

Gatto, S.L., & Tak, S.H. (2008). Computer, internet, and e-mail use among older adults: Benefits and barriers. Educational Gerontology, 34, 800-811.

Pearson, T. (2002). Falling behind: A technology crisis facing minority students. TechTrends, 46(2), 15-20.

Warschauer, M. (2004). Technology and social inclusion: Rethinking the digital divide. MIT press.

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