[Accessory auricle in the eustachian tube].

Most sites meet the needs of experienced young male users, whereas the need and interest of elderly women, the majority of the senior potential, are not targeted. Generally, for the elderly the Internet has a different collective significance than in other generations. In this article we present limits to the individual (motivational) approach, holding that access is a structural problem (e.g., the integration of the work and non-work spheres), as, for example, expressed in social network approaches (Stegbauer, 2001). The work sphere requires computer literacy and gives a magnitude of Internet use-reasons.

There are, however, some severe socio-technical arguments which demonstrate why the elderly lack sufficient motivation to participate. We have to keep in mind that the IT sector targets its products to the young and affluent, having in mind a trickle down model from early adopters to the broad public. The results of our own study (the housing study of elderly 65 plus dwellers) had a too small database of Internet users, which made further statistical analysis impossible.

On the one hand, these barriers can be removed via peers of younger informal or professional supporters. On the other hand having the means and training to access the Internet might become more important, presuming that the development of public (like e-government) and other Internet-based services increases rapidly.

When professional instruction is advocated the problem of special support is at a different level. A lot depends on the instructor’s image of the elderly. Reading the literature on the need for the participation of the elderly [24] we discover between the lines two inadequate approaches. The first is viewing the elderly in a deficient position, needing paternalistic help from the outside to discover online information related to their interests. This approach entails the risk of putting the elderly into a golden cage with special “senior” options; this approach certainly backfires as many of the edlerly do not do not identify with a “geezer” image [25].

There are a number of stories about grandpa learning about a computer from his grandson or daughter, learning step-by-step and supported by a younger individual acquainted with his shortcomings and peculiarities. This generational co-operation is one smooth solution to a deeper conflict in which and older individual is dependent but wants to be autonomous. The need for individualised special support by others, even by younger, “known” individuals, is a potential menace to one’s self-image and role as the “grown-up.” On the one hand informal computer-learning with peers or family members increases acceptance and creates an atmosphere of trust and understanding. On the other hand the complicated emotional situation of both parties can lead to conflicts. In short, often a professional pedagogical approach might be more appropriate.

Internet access and competence seem to be imperative. A complete participation of the population would be the best way to make use of the technological and social potential and advantages of the Internet.

On the societal level, with the growth of services like e-banking or e-government, traditional face-to-face services will decrease. In a way, some elderly Internet adopters are contributing involuntarily to a decrease in living conditions for non-Internet users of their own generation.

  • As the elderly have less social network support than the young, the entrance barrier is higher.
  • Pure learning by doing helps, but even if they manage to access digital information they need an intellectual effort to translate it into personal meaningful knowledge.
  • Computer-learning and the knowledge acquisition of modern technologies is per se informal learning.
  • The answer is through both informal and formal learning.
  • Cultural preparations and easy access modes are essential for the elderly, who could make use of latecomer advantages.

We tried to show that knowledge gap and digital divide discourses implicitly foster the myth of a technological driven social development. In this vein the elderly are obstacles for the rapid development of the Information Society, which promises to remove social barriers and provide a variety of e-based services. Concerns for increases in the digital divide between generations must be taken seriously but they still have a normative base (taking for granted that everyone has to use the Internet which per se has a positive value).

Access Options

Survey data was either used from the “cyberatlas” (former “NUA”) and other information services (like “nrw-media”) or was found online at special statistical data sources in Germany, provided by Social Science Institutions (ZUMA Mannheim, Zentralarchiv Köln, Deutsches Zentrum für Altersforschung Berlin). Our own research on specific technologists and Internet user groups (Paul, 1989; Konrad and Paul, 1999; Stegbauer, 2001) and current research with elderly employees and dwellers of a housing company provides a background for some of our assumptions. Technological optimists would argue that growing user figures among the elderly Internet-user group seem to indicate that the non-user problem will sooner or later disappear.

You need a device, a problem and someone who can help you to solve the problem. This is the big advantage of the young generation, who are socialised into this muddling through approach. Older individuals essentially have to unlearn some routines in order to deal with technology. However they have considerable latecomer advantages [23].

Generally young heavy users have more public and scientific attention than “light” or casual users or non-users. There are at least three types of “heavy” Internet users among the population. The first group represents Internet users who perform their online activities nearly exclusively at work, often mixing corporate and private interests. A second group uses the Internet equally at work and home. We might describe these individuals as young professionals, for whom technology use is permanently part of their lifestyle.

In our conclusions we look at the specific social status of the elderly cohort, which makes a comparison with other social groups very difficult. Concepts of the Internet are intertwined with ideas of a technology driven social development. This can be shown, for example, in discourses about the liberating and participatory potential of e-learning, e-government, e-elections, e-economy, etc. (Roesler, 1997; Malone and Laubacher, 1998; Zerdick, 1999; Lührs, et al., 2004). These and other applications (like e-banking, e-shopping, e-health) stand for the promise that in the near future individual well-being and social progress in the knowledge society (Bundesregierung, 2002; IST, 2002) will be enhanced by the technology of the Internet – provided all citizens have access and are ready to participate.

gerd munker

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