What’s the #1 reason why many older Americans use the web?

by on August 9, 2013 · 10 comments

Answer: To check health information. Seniors who can investigate a symptom online will save a trip to the hospital. Not knowing whether a symptom is serious and not having the ability to investigate the condition online, many seniors without internet access go to emergency room to answer their health related questions.

This is the fourth post in a series about broadband. It investigates criticisms about America’s broadband market by Susan Crawford. Other posts are available here and here.

Crawford notes on a recent blog post, “One recent 2012 study showed that even after going through digital literacy training, 22% of participants still did not have a connection.”  The part that Crawford doesn’t mention is that 78% of the 33,000 people who participated in the digital literacy program (30 hours of classroom instruction on the basics of the computers and internet) went on to become sustainable broadband adopters (SBAs), meaning they secured their own broadband connection at home.

The National Technology Information Association reports that 99% of Americans have access to broadband download speeds of 3 Mbps, and 96% of Americans have access to download speeds of 6 Mbps.  Deployment– the provision of broadband infrastructure–is not issue with broadband in America; it is rather, adoption or users taking advantage of broadband, which needs improvement.  One-third of Americans don’t connect to the internet, even though their home is passed by a broadband technology.

Samantha Schartman-Cycyk, is the Assistant Project Director for OneCommunity, a non-profit expanding broadband adoption.  She leads the program Connect Your Community (CYC) that was offered in Detroit, MI; Wintson-Salem, NC, Bradenton, FL; Lexington, KY, Cleveland and surrounding areas in northeast Ohio. Schartman-Cycyk notes “There is no one silver bullet” for solving the adoption problem.  There are many reasons why people don’t connect to the internet, including fear, lack of interest, and to a lesser extent, cost.

Her report, a survey of 2267 participants in the CYC program, offers an encouraging story about narrowing the digital divide.  22% of all participants report  a positive workforce impact. Of this group, 35% who had never used a computer before, now do for their job as a result of the program. Additionally 65% now pay bills online who didn’t before, 29% communicate online with a health care provider, and 59% report feeling independent.

Once participants completed the program, instructors helped them find an affordable broadband provider.  In some locations, there are reduced price programs from carriers.  “We found that most of those we worked with are excited to add a home broadband connection and to use their new-found computer skills.”  The #1 reason to get online, more than twice the #2 reason of finding a job, is to find health information including managing prescriptions.  Over 80% of the participants surveyed said that the program helped them find health information.

This project speaks to the importance of investigating root causes of lack of broadband access.  Critics frequently offer oversimplified platitudes such as “people are poor” or “there is no access”. It’s important to break down the demographics to get at key reasons of poor broadband adoption.

Age is an important determinant in whether one has broadband access. ”The younger the population, the higher the connectivity”, notes Schartman-Cycyk.  Having children in the home is associated with higher rates of broadband.

Older adults who are not online are often ”digitally naive”, the opposite of a ”digital native”.  Many fear computers and associate the interent  with identity theft. Moreover many believe that the internet is not relevant for them. After all, they grew up without the internet, and their lives were not empty.  ”It’s not until older adults are shown how to do things online that reflect their personal interests that they make a connection to broadband.  This means health information, recipes, coupons, and communicating with family more regularly,” observes  Schartman-Cycyk

The program also speaks to the need for more research about how people use the internet. ”If the goal is to close the digital divide, ultra-expensive fiber to the home is not going to be the answer for thousands of people who don’t use broadband at home today,” notes Schartman-Cycyk  Without programs such as CYC, many Americans will never get online, even if fiber is brough to their home.  Thus public resources may be better spent on digital literacy programs such as CYC than on network infrastructure.

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