The Need for Digital Equity
We, a group of student researchers from Northeastern University, have conducted a literature review examining the generational and socioeconomic divides in digital technology use and have found a pressing need for increased technology adoption among older adults.
Technology is becoming more essential for day-to-day living. Various digital tools are being integrated into workplaces, businesses, and homes to facilitate socialization, commerce, and health management. The COVID-19 pandemic has only accelerated this trend, normalizing the hosting of traditionally in-person activities on digital platforms. The increasing digitization of society is not without good reason—technology use offers a range of benefits and conveniences. For older adults in particular, technologies such as the Internet empower individuals to socialize, work remotely, monitor and manage their health, partake in civic society, and live independently, contributing to a healthier and more fulfilling life. However, technology access and use rates among adults aged 60-plus lag behind younger generations. The National Telecommunications and Information Administration reported that far fewer older adults in the United States owned computers (56%), used the Internet (52%) and had access to broadband Internet (49%) than their younger counterparts aged 16–44 (82%, 79% and 77%, respectively).
Among older adults, technology use is further dependent on a variety of socioeconomic statuses, leaving some already disadvantaged individuals further behind. Non-Latino white, well-educated individuals with higher incomes and supportive family connections are significantly more likely
to have access to and use digital technologies. Such individuals are also often the main subjects of studies that analyze technology use among older populations, leaving the needs of other communities under-researched. The high financial cost of technology adoption, relatively steep learning curve of many technologies, and tendency of developers to design products with little concern for accessibility block older adults who are less wealthy, have physical disabilities, are of a minority race or ethnicity, primarily speak a non-English language, and/or lack family connections from obtaining and using technology. Thus, existing barriers concentrate potentially universal benefits of technology among a select few, neglecting others along socioeconomic lines.
This existing inequity can be rectified. Research demonstrates that older adults are most likely to adopt new technologies when they have a strong and encouraging support system, suggesting that community organizations with meaningful connections to their residents may be in an ideal position to provide aid. Technology instruction programming has been proven to increase technology adoption and improve digital literacy by demonstrating ways to safeguard user privacy and security and by building confidence through technical instruction and moral support. Attempts to increase rates of technology use should keep in mind the particular needs of the older adults they serve, whether that be financial aid, access to accessible devices, translators, or otherwise.
Little Brothers-Friends of the Elderly has worked with the Boston community for over 40 years, developing meaningful connections with older adults that can help guide older adults through the challenging process of adopting new technologies while acknowledging their diverse needs. We believe that supporting and expanding their digital literacy programming will significantly increase the number of older adults who use technology in a city that lags behind; only 62.3% of those aged 60-plus in Boston used the Internet in a month in 2018 compared to 71.3% of older adults across Massachusetts. Technology will bring substantial benefits to a city that performed worse than the state in eight out of nine behavioral health measurements for older adults.
To find out more and to view all of our sources, please visit the full literature review:
Neff, L., Senescall, M., & Duntugan, S. (2021, November 2). Root Causes and Consequences of the Generational and Socioeconomic Divides in Digital Technology: How Community-Based Organizations Can Bridge These Gaps in Light of the COVID-19 Pandemic. Little Brothers-Friends of the Elderly, Boston. Retrieved from