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Born this Way: The 50+ Folks are Digital Immigrants & Innocents
Back in 2001, Marc Prensky coined the terms digital native and digital immigrants in this seminal paper. He said, "Today's average college grads have spent less than 5,000 hours of their lives reading, but over 10,000 hours playing video games (not to mention 20,000 hours watching TV). Computer games, email, the Internet, cell phones and instant messaging are integral parts of their lives." Today’s young adults are "native speakers" of the digital language of computers, video games and the Internet. Digital natives have always been around technology and devices. They are accustomed to trying new tech, having things not work right, and talking to their digital native friends to group troubleshoot and learn what works best.
Digital Immigrants are over 30 and use technology. Most adults over 30 who use technology are considered digital immigrants. Prensky says that while we learn to adapt to this new digital environment, we always maintain, to some degree, our "accent" – our foot in the past. As a result, we learn differently and the older we are when we immigrate, the heavier our accent. Pensky’s favorite example of the "accent" is the "Did you get my email?" phone call. Digital immigrants most likely adopted technology as part of a job, school or volunteer activity and don’t have the fearlessness that the natives do. In fact, digital immigrants are used to training classes, IT departments and other support groups to help them weave their way to ultimately making the computer/Internet/cloud help them get some task accomplished.
Technology as a servant, not a master. A colleague recently illustrated this story with his own experience. He wanted to update three Apple devices; a phone, iPad and computer; and took them all to a local Apple store to have them updated. The Genius promptly told him he should do it himself. But, my friend insisted that they do it since he didn’t want to clutter his brain with all the learning that had to ensue to actually do the upgrading. The Genius agreed to help. After 2.5 hours and a lot of not-following-the-easy-directions, his devices were all upgraded to the 'cloud.' How long would it have taken a 'non-genius' to accomplish the same thing? And, how often does that anticipation of wasted time, frustration, or yelling at inanimate objects stop a digital immigrant from trying new and helpful gadgets, gizmos, software, apps, etc.?
Digital Innocents are not online and don’t think they need to be. Fast forward to 2012 when the Pew Internet & American Life folks coined the term Internet Innocents – referring to people who were not yet online. Not surprisingly, many of the innocents are older adults. The innocents don’t know why the rest of us think this Internet/computer stuff is useful. Pew says, "Among adults who do not use the Internet, almost half have told us that the main reason they don’t go online is because they don’t think the Internet is relevant to them. And even for many of the 'core' internet activities we studied, significant differences in use remain, generally related to age, household income, and educational attainment."
Laurie Orlov has pointed out how dismal the statistics are from Pew and how this is marginalizing older adult’s participation in everyday life. This hit home yesterday in my AARP chapter’s board meeting – we had seven attendees, all women, and were discussing a new project to get the Merchant Marines recognized for their service in WWII. It was decided to share information via email since time was of the essence. The problem was that two of the seven attendees didn’t have email, didn’t intend to get email and were a smidge peeved that they couldn’t be included in the ongoing work. Is this the type of relevance that the innocents need to get online? I doubt it because of the perceived huge learning curve.
Hands-on and learn-by-doing. We’ve been conducting a technology survey in San Diego County to gauge older adults interests in and use of technology. After tallying 400 surveys by age decade (50s, 60s, 70s, and 80+), it’s apparent that the oldest have the least exposure to the newest technologies and, the farther away from the workforce you get, the more problematic technical support becomes. Family members aren’t good technical support in most cases. (Duh.) And, those younger adults, the digital native tech support people in Best Buy and Apple stores, think differently and can’t communicate effectively about technology with older adults and our "accents."
San Diego’s older adults have told us that they want 'hands-on' experiences with newer technologies and that they want to learn-by-doing from their peers. (Probably sick of asking their kids for help.) And, they told us that their two largest obstacles are "too-fast instructions that are over-their-head" and technical support. How can we overcome the obstacles? Our digital immigrants and innocents need immediate success in an older-adult friendly learning environment. They need to build the self-confidence and the self-help skills needed to flourish in today’s digital world.
Everything they need to know is on YouTube. My digital native 25-year-old son pointed out to me that everything we immigrants need to learn about technology is on YouTube. When he and I are jointly learning something, he turns to YouTube and I turn to text (online, but still text.) Recently, I wanted to find a new crochet stitch and took his advice. It was much easier to get the hang of it watching a YouTube video a few times than trying to figure it out from illustrations. And, with a bookmark, I could go right back to that site if I forgot how to do it. TedEd might be a great tool for senior-to-senior education.
Empowering the Is. Seniors are entering into the digital world. But, we still need to help many older adults understand why those newfangled iPads are a worthy replacement for their 10-year-old computer. We need to show them how cool and useful Skype is and then give them all the pointers they need to download, configure, find contacts and actually use Skype. We need to encourage the innocents to touch the iPad, to poke the Telikin, or to give their Presto email address to their friends and relatives. Those of us who have the wherewithal to help must do so. Otherwise, the digital divide will hurt or kill our friends and family through isolation. And, we can’t let that happen.