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Digital World Marginalizes Many Seniors

Submitted on Monday, March 20, 2017

Technological advances are moving everyday tasks online, including banking, shopping, communicating, and refilling prescriptions. And many seniors are trying to keep up, but many can’t, leading to social isolation, says Assistant Professor Cosmin Munteanu, at U of T Mississauga’s Institute for Communication, Culture, Information and Technology, cross-appointed to the Faculty of Information, Department of Computer Science, and co-director of the Technologies for Aging Gracefully Lab (TAGlab).

“Many older adults are marginalized digitally,” he says. “Facilitating their online participation may lead to a reduction of their social isolation, which will lead to several other indirect benefits,” such as health, or finances.

But research on how extensive the problem is can be limited, he says. So Prof. Munteanu has teamed up with first-year Master of Information student, Hiba Rafih, to research the issue.

Hiba explains that seniors are not generally viewed as an “attractive topic” for research. Therefore, the lack of data on senior citizens and their digital knowledge and habits increases the isolation for those aged 65 and over. Society cannot fix the problem, she warns, until we identify who is vulnerable, and until then, “the divide will continue to widen between seniors with low digital literacy and the exponential advancements made in technology.”

In Canada for the first time in our history, the number of people aged 65 years and older exceeds the number of children aged 0 to 14 years. In 2014/2015, those aged 65 years and older were approximately four times the growth rate of the total population, demonstrating that senior citizens are a rapidly growing segment of the Canadian population.

It’s time to face the issue, say Cosmin and Hiba, so they are analysing and assessing seniors, their relationship to technology, and their access to information online. Professor Munteanu began collaborating with Hiba when she was an undergraduate student at University of Toronto Mississauga’s Institute for Communication, Culture, Information and Technology last year.

Senior citizens, Hiba states, are vulnerable and sometimes socially isolated, making it more difficult for them to reach out for help in navigating the World Wide Web. Typically, when asking for help, people reach out to their social circles including friends or family members. However, senior citizens’ social circles are typically small, or for older seniors, can be non-existent. This means that asking for assistance, or even knowing how to articulate a question regarding technology, can be a major roadblock for seniors attempting to use the Internet for social interaction, information, or tasks.

While the research project is in the pilot stage, the duo hope to identify major barriers, and what society might do to address seniors’ lack of access to technology, and how that affects their social circles, and quality of life.

The main outcome of their research, Professor Munteanu says, will be to contribute to a reduction in older adults’ digital marginalization, more cyber safety awareness, and knowledge, and increased online participation for our seniors.

Hiba and Cosmin will present their research entitled, “The digital marginalization of older adults and its implications for Cybersafety,” at the Faculty of Information on March 21st.