Older generations shouldn't fear being a digital burden

Emma McGowan 18 Oct 2021

Older Americans seek independence and confidence online but often lack the tools or knowledge to feel secure and keep their information private

Jay McGowan, 83, spends about seven or eight hours a day online. He’s had the internet since 1995, but didn’t start spending so much time on it until he retired from his position as chief helicopter pilot of the Port Authority New York/New Jersey in 2002. “It keeps my mind busy,” McGowan tells Avast. “It keeps me from getting bored.”

While McGowan is spending more than the average amount of time online for his age group, he might find that his peers have been catching up with him since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic. According to a recent Avast survey conducted with Forsa and YouGov about global internet trends, about 22% of people over the age of 65 spend more than three hours per day online, with 20% saying that the internet has become “much more important” and 26% saying it has become “a little more important” since the start of the pandemic. 

But increased time on the internet doesn’t necessarily correlate with increased confidence about how to do “relatively simple” things online. According to the survey, the oldest age group has the least confidence in their online abilities, with only about 16% of people over 65 say their ability to do things online is “very good,” and an additional 43% say it’s “quite good.” Compare that to ages 25 to 34 — the most confident group — which reports 43% “very good” and 35% “quite good.”

McGowan can relate. “For an oldster like me, it’s not an easy trick learning the basics of these things,” he says.

“I don’t really feel knowledgeable, but I can usually resolve problems,” he adds. “And if it’s a real problem, we have Comcast and I can call them and they help me resolve it. Or I call [my son] Keith or I call [my grandson] Theo to get things resolved. Or, I turn the computer off and turn it back on again.”

The top three issues that people have trouble with are backing up files (59%), dealing with problems and pop-up windows on their computer (46%), and setting, remembering and recovering passwords (43%). 

“I finally bought an iPhone-type phone and I haven’t got a freaking clue how to do 90% of the capabilities on it,” McGowan says. “I did learn how to do messaging! And I can do phone calls on it but, other than the basics, I finally learned how to take pictures. Sometimes I take pictures and it turns out to be videos.”

Jaya Baloo, Avast Chief Information Security Officer (CISO), however, views these numbers as encouraging, saying that “such high levels of online confidence” are a “positive” sign.

"However, we cannot ignore the differences we see in this confidence and we need to keep older demographics in mind when it comes to digital education,” Baloo says. “We, as an industry, need to be enablers for potentially vulnerable digital citizens, and sharing online knowledge needs to be a part of family conversations. The younger generations specifically have been playing an essential role in helping their parents and grandparents navigate the online world, which we see confirmed by our survey.”

For McGowan’s part, he has no problem asking younger generations for help — and he hasn’t found that anyone has been condescending about his age when he’s struggling with some new technology. That reflects the attitudes of younger generations in the Avast survey, with younger generations saying that helping their parents and grandparents with digital issues made them feel helpful (64%), valued and appreciated (39%), and fulfilled (20%).   

That’s especially important when looking at the fears that keep older people from fully participating online: 69% of people over the age of 65 have decided not to do something – ranging from not posting something on social media to not downloading certain files to not adding personal details to accounts, among others – online due to security and privacy concerns. Additionally, 17% of people over the age of 65 feel that they don’t have enough knowledge about how to protect themselves online. 

And those fears are founded: According to the 2020 FBI Elder Fraud Report, people over the age of 60 are the most likely to be victims of cyber crimes, with nearly $1 billion in reported losses in 2020 alone. That’s an approximately $200 million jump from 2019, highlighting the fact that the increased time online has put seniors at greater risk.

As our lives become increasingly digital even as the pandemic starts to recede, make sure to check in on your older family members. And older family members? Don’t feel ashamed to ask for help. Your kids and grandkids are there for you, just like you’ve been there for them. 

Further reading:
Learn how to protect elders from tech support scams
How tech can help elders improve their quality of life
How to protect your older loved ones from getting scammed online

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