/ Health, Technology

Who is supporting our ‘silver surfers’?

Elderly man looking confused at computer

Believe it or not there are around nine million Brits who’ve never been online. But what’s the point of initiatives to get people using the internet if there’s no funding to teach them the skills they need to do so?

The government has just appointed a new Executive Director of Digital to head up a digital ‘revolution’ aiming to cut costs and change the way we interact with public services.

In line with this I’ve noticed a big media push over the last few months encouraging more people to take their ‘First Click’. The BBC is backing it, and then there’s Race Online, a government scheme boasting ‘a rallying cry for us all to create a truly networked nation’.

But what about those people who don’t know how to use the internet – or those who have never even used a computer? According to the government website Directgov nine million people in Britain, including many aged over 50, have never been online.

Funding cuts are a step backwards

My personal interest in this topic has come from a previous job teaching basic computer skills to elderly citizens at a local pensioners’ centre. The overriding reason they attended was because they didn’t want to feel cut off from a huge part of today’s society.

However the pensioners’ centre in question is now facing possible closure because of funding cuts, with several similar centres in the area to shut down this month. To me, this decline in free access to computers means that the push to get more people online will come up against inevitable hurdles. Not everyone has access, and where they do they may lack the confidence or skills to participate anyway.

Plus, the learning resource My Guide, set up under the last government to help beginners with IT skills, has recently been trimmed down ‘in line with the cuts taking place across the public sector’. Is this not a step backwards?

We can’t afford to resist technology

With local councils, police forces and job centres upping their online content, it’s clear that online accessibility saves money for businesses and public services. As well as saving some cash in the public purse, it would be naïve to deny the benefits the online world can bring to us as individuals.

This is a point that Rob Reid, Scientific Policy Advisor at Which?, raised when I spoke to him about this issue:

‘Getting online gives you access to a facet of society that you’re otherwise excluded from, not to mention access to better deals on a range of goods and services. For this reason it is laudable for government and businesses to encourage consumers to get online.’

But, if using the internet really is shifting from being an optional pastime to a necessary skill, are there enough educational provisions to support our ‘silver surfers’ (a government term, not my own)?

As Rob continues, ‘It is vitally important that in the race to be Europe’s leading digital economy we don’t leave behind the elderly and vulnerable’. My sentiments exactly, so shouldn’t these fancy schemes be backed up with practical support?


Perhaps we need an analysis of the reasons why so many people have not used the Internet. For a start there is the cost of buying and running a computer. They may know people who have experienced the frustration that computers can cause, even for those who consider themselves experienced. Buying goods and using other online services is not without problems. Computer support can be very expensive and unhelpful.

Not everyone wants to use a computer. Not everyone wants to watch TV, drive, go to church or go to the pub. It’s a matter of personal choice.

Friends and family can help those who do want to get online, but it is not being helpful to offer the novice a five year old computer, as sometimes happens.

agreed with Wavechange, people are making a choice, what right is it of ours to force them to do any different?

Because the councils are doing so? Give me a break, if a non surfing pensioner needs to find out information from the council, they will do what they’ve always done, pick up a phone!

We really have to stop assuming that everyone wants to be a part of this so-called tech revolution. I for one am immersed in it and cannot get out. I am actually jealous of older people who have managed to get on in life without having to result in going online, so please, can we just leave them be? Do we really need to spend money on more frivolous pursuits like this? Consider how few companies actually pay attention to quality, pensioners will have to learn loads more skills just to get it fixed.

Or can we just learn to accept people for who they are and what life choices they make?

Anything else is discrimination, pure and simple

“Getting online gives you access to a facet of society that you’re otherwise excluded from”

rubbish, the web IS inclusive, you just have to choose whether you want to join or not. To insinuate that it’s some kind of elite society that you have to be a part of is completely incorrect.

Stop trying to justify why you spend most of your time on the net and not with you family/friends/kids etc

Hi Dean and wavechange – I see your points, and you’re right, it’s not for us to force people to use the internet if they don’t want to. But I think it *is* important to show people what they can do with the internet, and the different ways that they can get online – that way they can make an informed choice.

If the main barriers preventing someone from getting online are: lack of a computer and lack of knowledge/understanding then I think it *is* really unfair (and yes, possibly discriminatory) if we don’t try to include them by giving them computer access and the skills they need to use the net.

The point about cost is a really important one – many government services are looking to go wholly online, the idea being that it’s far far more expensive to staff a telephone service than to make sure you’ve got good web content up to date. If we can get more people online doing e.g. tax returns, passport applications, student loan applications, etc, we save a huge amount of tax money.

Again, I’m not saying we should force people online, but we should recognise the huge benefits of having a society in which everyone can use the internet if they want to.

I am very keen to encourage older people to use computers and enjoy the benefits of being online. Even though the Government may want to run all services online, they need to make allowance for the disabled and those who cannot or will not make use of online services. The number of non-disabled people who don’t make use of these services is likely to decrease with time.

Don’t forget that some Government run online services leave a lot to be desired. For example, I try to renew my tax disk online and every year I fail, simply because my insurance and tax disk expire at about the same time.

This post contains what I see as the real reason for the pressure being turned up – and not so subtly either. “We save a huge amount of tax money.” Who saves? Is it going cut the levels of tax? I don’t think so.

As has been properly noted by a number of other commentators on this thread, there are plenty of good reasons why people (not just ‘silver surfers’ patronising name prize winner). To what problem is the web a solution, as a wise New York scientist once remarked.

The fact that the BBC and other broadcasters now assume that everyone is on-line adds to the perception of an exclusive aspect and that does not help.

If you look at the back of old copies of the Radio Times, when radio was “the thing” and you’ll see bits that can be added to your ‘wireless’ to make it better. That’s where computing is today. When computers are simple, obvious and easy to use, that is when everybody will be on line and it won’t be anything to do with campaigns.

Like Nikki, I can see a lot of sense in the comments so far as well, but when many items are cheaper online, or certain tariffs only available to online customers etc etc, there’s a lot of discrimination going on against those who don’t have access. Either companies should not be allowed to favour online only customers, or more time should be spent helping people access the info online.

And, as Alice says, there are many ‘digitally excluded’ people who DO want to learn these skills. It’s those people that really need to be taught these basic skills.

Hannah – Who should help people use online services? My suggestion (above) is friends and family, but do you think that companies and the Government should do more to help users of their sites?

Many older people don’t make much use of their computers because they cannot cope with problems that they encounter. Running a Windows computer is a bit like driving a car in the 1930s, where you have to have some knowledge or know someone who can help when a problem arises.

In an ideal world of course everyone would have friends and family to help. When my mother-in-law got her first computer I showed her and write down step-by-step instructions on how to send an email. I lost count of the number of times she told me how helpful it was for me to break it down for her like that! But in reality, many people don’t have anyone to teach them, which is where service like the one Alice used to work for come in.

I’ve signed up to help with three schemes in Buckinghamshire / one across England.

Not a single take-up.

I’m retired senior IT trainer and cannot get Bucks to do anything useful in this field – they have a few classes at the library, which they protect against intruders like me!

I cannot even give my services away for free!

Maddy says:
25 May 2011

I totally agree with Alice, a lot of pensioners don’t have the family to help them use the internet, and also a lot of pensioners don’t have the money or facilities. Something has to be done to not let them get left behind!

Jamie says:
25 May 2011

Like Maddy; I agree with Alice completely!
As much as politicians like to disagree – there is more funding, so don’t be fooled.
We absolutely cannot let these pensioners be missed out of the ever changing technology whirlwind.

Hi Dean,

Thanks for your comment. I did not mean to suggest that everybody must be forced to get online, but that the online environment offers a range of services, products and deals – to those who want them – that are simply not available offline.

I completely agree that the web is inclusive. I think the problem is that access to it is not, and the support that many users feel they need to enable them to participate in a safe and secure way is lacking.

I certainly did not wish to insinuate that it was an elite society, and thankfully I am lucky enough to spend most of my time with my family and friends in the real world, as well as time with those family members who are not close enough to see in the flesh, in the online world.

Fred says:
25 May 2011

‘“Getting online gives you access to a facet of society that you’re otherwise excluded from”
rubbish, the web IS inclusive, you just have to choose whether you want to join or not. To insinuate that it’s some kind of elite society that you have to be a part of is completely incorrect.”

In response to this we might consider the fact that we are engaged in an on line debate about a whole section of society who are presumably unable to participate in the discussion. The web forms a closed society that people are denied access to until they are educated and given access to the facilities which will allow them to make an informed choice about the extent to which they wish to participate in such things.

The government needs to maintain and extend the facilities that are already available if we are to ensure that the internet does not remain closed to the older generation.

Phil says:
25 May 2011

This is a problem, if problem is the right word, which will resolve itself before the government will get around to sorting it out. The next generation of the elderly will be have been on line for a decade or more in middle age, the biggest problem may be accessibility.

Hi Rob,

In hindsight, I was a bit harsh, so apologies for that.

I really don’t know about this one though.

I personally find the interweb a very empty and lonely space, vicariously enjoying things whilst sat in front of a computer screen. It’s an anti-thesis to life and I completely understand why older people find it difficult to get. I personally have grown up with the internet growing with me and so luckily I can just down tools whenever I’ve had enough.

The internet has created various generations of online psyches, I am in the middle somewhere and can see both arguments. Personally I think that older people would be better off without the internet as it only offers them cheaper prices and is the cost of a computer/setup/training ever going to offset that?

I’m not so sure

dean – A lot of older people do find the Internet unrewarding, but there are many that use it and some who enjoy the experience. Surely it is right to encourage and help the elderly to get online, but to respect their wishes if they do not wish to, for whatever reason.

One way to encourage older people to use a computer is to find out what they are likely to find interesting. Having friends and family who will sit down with them and demonstrate how the computer can be used to find interesting information is, in my view, a better approach than sending them off to a class for training. The training can come later.

It would be good to have some contributions from older people who have started using the Internet in the last year or so.

Fred says:
26 May 2011

What about all the elderly people who aren’t fortunate enough to have friends and family around them to help with getting on line? In this instant local facilities with someone on hand to help with training would be the only option for them to be able to participate.

Moreover, a large part of taking part in computer classes is the social aspect. To get out of the house and develop new skills in the company of a group of people of a similar age who might have similar apprehensions about computers. To my mind keeping pensioners at home and expecting their friends and family to teach them just makes them dependent in a way I think is disempowering.

I completely agree with your comments, but many older people (and even some middle-aged people) lack confidence and would not go out and find a computer course.

If they do have the confidence, that’s great. Otherwise let’s give them a bit of help to get started and the training can come later, as suggested earlier.

Surely they can become a member of Which? and learn all they need to from there? 🙂

I am fine with giving them assistance, but does it need to be funded by the taxpayer? In my view, no, as it is not an essential or a right

Mary says:
28 May 2011

How will being a member of Which help if you’ve never been on a computer and don’t have access to one? I think people who can confidently use PCs often don’t realise how complicated and daunting they can seem to people who have never used one.

also, do you realise that a state pension is less than a hundred pounds a week. So after paying bills, buying food etc do you think there’s much left over to subscribe to a magazine? I think you’re a bit out of touch with how many people live in poverty in this country

There are lots of ways that older people can get online without the taxpayer having to fund expensive courses. I’ve been digging around for links to this project as someone drew my attention to it a while ago and I thought it was brilliant.

It’s called ‘First Click’ and it’s run by the BBC. They run sessions that match school students with older people with the aim of getting the students to teach computer and internet skills to the older generation:

This video explains it really well, and I think it’s quite moving. I think it’s great to have these sort of cross-generational workshops because it allows children to learn from older people and vice-versa. It would have been brilliant if they had something like this when I was at school. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/school_report/9482583.stm

Laura Ramsey says:
26 May 2011

Great to hear the debate! Race Online 2012’s ambition is to make the UK the world’s first networked nation where everyone has the skills to enjoy the huge individual benefits of being online (average household savings of £560/ increased contact with family and friends – the list goes on). The work is done through our partner network, with us sitting as a hub of information and bringing together partners (sometimes very unlikley partners!) in the same room – to tackle the issue.

There are still plenty of places that people can go to learn basic internet and computer skills, including First Click centres, at very low-cost. You can find them using the postcode search here: http://www.ukonlinecentres.com/centresearch/ or via the freephone number 0800 77 1234. Some courses are also available online such as http://www.go-on.co.uk.

As the main barrier for non users is lack of motivation (64%) the 30 million daily internet users in the UK can help. In May we announced the recruitment of the biggest cross-sector volunteers network, of atleast 100,000 digital champions i.e. people who have pledged to inspire, encourage and support others to get online. The http://www.helppassiton.co.uk website has lots of tools and tips on this so it’s the best place to start. There’s also a ‘Mythbuster’ on why the internet is in fact for everyone.

We also acknowledge that cost can be a barrier. Whilst there are places where people can go to get access, like in local libraries, we’ve also been working with our partners to ensure that there are low cost hardware solutions, some under £100. These are regularly updated here: http://www.helppassiton.co.uk/set-up

I’d also recommend taking a look at AbilityNet’s site http://www.abilitynet.org.uk/ as they’re a charity that helps people with disabilities use the internet and computers by adapting and adjusting the technology.

One thing we’d like to do is make it more clear and simpler for people to compare broadband and connectivity deals before they’re online/using price comparison sites. Do you think Which? could help?

Hi Laura
Thanks for your very useful insight into resources on this issue – I’m sure people will find it helpful, although it does strike me as a little ironic that so many of the resources to help get people online are… online! But very useful for friends and family looking to help others.

Thanks also for your invitation for Which? to get more involved, I’ll certainly pass your request on to the right people here and I’m sure someone will be in touch soon.

Mary says:
26 May 2011

Laura, who are these 100, 000 digital champions? Big numbers like this are eye-catching, but they don’t seem to mean much. These mysterious champions add to the heap of invisible Big Society volunteers we’ve been told about- but when are they going to all materialise?

Wiclif McCready says:
26 May 2011

As somebody who has just moved back to BT I agree with Hanna that most of the resources to help you get sorted are online. I am trying to sort out a couple of things, including complaining about my broadband speed and, at every step, BT are putting obstacles in your way to either email or speak to somebody – they are most determined that you should be able to find your answers online. At the same time the questions that I want to ask never seem to be amongst those offering solutions. After saying all this, I have an inbuilt dread of having to phone somebody as I am fairly deaf, and even with volume assisted phones find it very difficult to cope with the foreign accents that seem inevitable on help lines.

BT provide a Web-based form for online enquiries: http://bt.custhelp.com/app/contact_email/c/1885
This is referred to as email, but does not enable the user to keep a copy of their message.

Laura Ramsey says:
27 May 2011

Mary, it is a very good question. The number of champions is made up of commitments (some already in place) from a number of organisations, including Mecca Bingo, John Lewis, Post Office, Age UK, Scouts, BT and Jobcentre Plus.If you’re interested, info on the breakdown of the 100,000 volunteers, as well as more info on the hardware deals, is available here: http://raceonline2012.org/press-coverage

Debbie Southampton says:
27 May 2011

I am also retired made redundant from local council following cut backs. My job? Helping older people to get on line. Funding disappeared. I now run courses through Age Concern in Southampton, but have to charge a minimum amount to help me live which means that applicants also have to pay a small amount. There is a long waiting list which proves that there is a demand. But with the ever increasing older population who have no idea of the benefits that can be obtained from the web, the funding has dried up. Shopping on line, finding out about benefits on line…….. could go on and on with the list and most importantly of all, keeping in contact with relatives and friends throughout the world for nothing……