Tips & Advice

Helping Older Adults Build Strong Digital Literacy Skills

Most of us take our skills for granted when it comes to technology. We move effortlessly between applications and multiple devices. We install new software, set up numerous accounts, and easily clear technical hurdles that come our way. Unfortunately, that picture isn’t the norm for many older adults.  

Engaging with technology can be challenging for older adults. However, when digital literacy skills are neglected or avoided, everyday activities such as online bill paying, shopping, medical appointments, and even social media can be overwhelming. And, since the pandemic, the digital divide between older adults and digital skills has become even more evident.   

Digital Divide  

One Pew study revealed that older adults continue to lag behind younger adults when it comes to technology adoption in that 41% do not use the internet at all, 23% do not use cell phones, and over 75% say they require help when learning how to use new technology.   

Bridging the Gap 

The Pew study also highlighted good news: Attitudes shift for the better when older adults increase their digital skills and access the Internet more frequently. Fully 79% of older adults who use the internet regularly agree with the statement that “people without internet access are at a real disadvantage because of all the information they might be missing.” In comparison, 94% agree with the statement that “the internet makes it much easier to find information today than in the past.” 

So how can we help the older adults in our lives grow both their digital skills and their confidence? Building practical digital skills begin with a commitment to one another, to consistency, and to learning. Here are some tips to get you started.  

7 Ways to Boost Digital Literacy 

1. Schedule dedicated time.

If you are helping an older adult build their digital skills, it’s crucial to schedule dedicated training time. Commitment and consistency will be key to achieving real results. If you’re the older adult learning on your own, set aside dedicated learning time with clear goals. For instance, “Each day this week from 7 a.m. to 9 a.m. I will learn how to set up my email and how to maximize security on all my devices.”  

2. Choose your resources and go!

Fortunately, more and more resources are emerging to help older adults bridge their technology gaps, and most are free. A few places to begin include AARP’s Senior PlanetCandoo Tech, and GetSetUp. To find a program in your area, go to at3center.net. 

3. Prioritize cybersecurity. 

Online security is one of the most critical conversations you can have with the older adults in your life. Following best practices such as installing security software, using strong passwords with Two-Factor Authentication (2FA), understanding data privacy, and knowing how to identify phishing and malware scams are fundamental components of digital literacy. For a deeper dive into cybersecurity best practices, read more 

4. Explore media literacy.

Older adults can easily fall prey to scams, conspiracies, hoaxes, and false news stories online. A recent study out of Princeton and NYU found that, prior to the 2016 election, adults over 65 were seven times more likely than those under 29 to post articles from fake news domains.Understanding how to spot misinformation online is a critical skill for anyone online. One resource to build media literacy is MediaWise for Seniors, a series of free online courses by Poynter designed to help older adults detect and combat fake news and misinformation. In addition, consider dialogue on how to challenge each piece of digital content by asking: 

  • Do I understand all the points of view of this story? 
  • What do I think about this topic or idea? 
  • Am I overly emotional and eager to share this publicly? 
  • Am I being manipulated by this content? 
  • What if I’m wrong? 

5. Avoid technical jargon. 

Jargon excludes and when you use insider language with a non-technical person, it can get overwhelming. Slow down. Use ordinary terms. For instance, instead of the hyperlink, consider “link.” Instead of URL, opt for “website address.” Rather than DM/PM, use “Private Message.” Note: Avoiding jargon doesn’t mean you dumb down to a person; it means using plain language to explain the same concept.   

6. Be patient. 

It’s a myth (and an unfortunate stereotype) that older adults don’t have the ability or don’t want to learn about technology. Frankly, they can, and they do. However, physical and mental changes are part of the aging process, which means repetition and patience are part of the process. Consider creating easy-to-read cheat sheets to summarize the day’s lesson.  

Technology is impacting our lives in myriad ways, and no one feels this reality pressing in more than older adults. If you find yourself in the privileged position of coaching an older adult toward digital confidence, remind them of the gains ahead and that the gap from “here” to “there” isn’t nearly as large as they’ve imagined. Whenever possible, point their sights to the proven benefits of stepping off the sidelines and into a connected world.  

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