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Silver surfers versus low digital literacy among older people
Published on 30 January 2023

Even though digital skills are definitely in need of improvement in the older generation, there are more and more older people who are getting into the use of digital media, especially through the use of messenger services on smartphones and the associated social inclusion. Boosted by the Covid-19 pandemic, many have benefited from the use of messenger services and video telephony to stay in touch with family and friends. But overall, the big digitisation push in the over-65 generation has failed to materialise [1]. However, to make the older generation sufficiently digitally fit, they need more than the ability to download apps to their smartphones or to do online banking. Low-threshold learning opportunities are needed in the municipalities.

Smartphone competence

Many older people have their first digital contact through the use of smartphones and messenger services. Smartphones and messenger apps have long since ceased to be the preserve of younger generations. According to the ARD/ZDF online study, every second person in the 70+ generation uses WhatsApp [2]. The app is present as a communication medium in all age groups. The network effect described above also works here. If the children or grandchildren use WhatsApp, the app also becomes interesting for parents and grandparents. In a study by the Medienpädagogischer Forschungsverband Südwest, three quarters of the young people surveyed said they had a WhatsApp group with their family [3]. WhatsApp offers groups like families an easy way to communicate with each other across generations. WhatsApp is also part of everyday life for older demographics. In a survey by the Federal Network Agency (2020) [4], respondents said they use WhatsApp because the app is so intuitive to use and they reach the majority of their contacts there. Even people with less digital affinity can therefore easily get to grips with the app. The use of WhatsApp and other chat-based tools has gone through the roof in recent years. This is not only true for millennials - the expectations of communication have changed for older generations as well. 70% of Germans use WhatsApp daily,It is interesting that WhatsApp is used regularly across all age groups. Admittedly, the frequency of use decreases with increasing age. Nevertheless, WhatsApp also achieves high values among older people.

A representative survey by the Federal Network Agency (2020) [4] provides information on the frequency of use of the individual functions. 81% of respondents stated that they use the voice and picture messaging function of their preferred messenger app on a daily basis. Just under half of the respondents use voice messages daily. Video telephony, on the other hand, has not yet arrived in the everyday life of users and is only used by 11% on a daily basis. Nevertheless, the standard functions are used most often with messaging apps such as WhatsApp. In a survey by Bitkom (2018) [1] [5], actual writing with contacts was named by 85% of respondents as a function they had used in the last three months. The second most popular function was sending pictures with 70%.

Internet competence

During the pandemic period, many older people used delivery services and other services for the first time, contacting them via the internet. The internet offers many advantages, especially for "silver surfers". Digital offers could help them to live self-determined lives for as long as possible, even if their mobility is limited. For example, seniors can order and organise the goods and services they need every day online and communicate actively with family and friends via smartphone or laptop. [6]

Therefore, 62 % of older Internet users would not want to miss these advantages of the Internet as a source of information and the associated expansion of possibilities and can no longer imagine a life without the Internet. 94 % of older internet users stated that they were able to expand their knowledge.

Of those who do not use the internet, every second person thinks that they do not need the internet and that they have managed well without it up to now. However, just as many people lack the technical possibilities to access the internet and 30 % do not want to deal with the digital world at an older age. Many non-users would like to access the internet, but they have no one to show them. One in seven of them (14%) say this. [1] and [7]

Therefore, interested people should not stay away from the digital world because they lack the appropriate support. Older people in particular need support in taking their first steps into the digital world, because in order to make the older generation sufficiently digitally fit, more is needed than the ability to download apps to a smartphone or to do online banking. Low-threshold learning opportunities are needed in the municipalities. [6] To this end, more and more offers are being made close to home by social associations and also church communities, which are also collected and publicised at the municipal level.

Television and newspaper still popular

As a further reason for the digital abstinence of some senior citizens, the study cites the lack of need among older people to use online media. For many, the classic information and communication channels are sufficient. In addition, security issues and a lack of support keep the older generation away from the digital world. Around 40 percent do not trust themselves to use the internet (SIM study).

Digital divide

The SIM study Older people lack digital literacy [8] makes it clear: the higher the level of education, the more pronounced the internet skills. Men between 60 and 69 have more skills than women of the same age. With regard to smartphone skills, no such gender-specific difference can be observed.

According to a study, the majority of older people in Germany have considerable deficits in terms of digital competence. Among 60 to 69 year-olds, only 41 percent feel confident or very confident in using the internet. This was the result of a representative survey of around 1,000 people conducted by the market research company Kantar on behalf of the Bertelsmann Foundation. In the 70 plus group, only one in three (36 percent) said the same. By comparison, 79 percent of 14- to 29-year-olds feel safe or very safe.

In addition, people belonging to the older generation differ significantly from each other in how they use digital media. According to this, the proportion of people who are digitally on the go decreases with increasing age. In the study, 81 percent of respondents aged 60 and over said they were online at least rarely. Among people aged 80 and over, the share is only around 50 percent. Among the over 85s, two thirds are not or not independently on the move in the digital world.

Senior citizens would like to see more support from politicians on digital issues. Six out of ten (61 percent) want politicians to make the internet safer overall. A similar number (59 per cent) advocate more help for people who have not grown up with the internet. 44 percent think that it should be ensured that there is also fast and affordable internet in rural areas. And one in three (33 percent) would like to see more telemedicine services. "One of the most important tasks of digital policy is to make it easier for older people in particular to access the digital world," says Berg. From Bitkom's point of view, digital street workers could help accompany older people into the online world. In addition, experience and testing rooms for new technologies should be set up throughout the municipalities, where media and digital technologies can be tried out in a low-threshold manner. And in the professional groups relevant to older people, Bitkom believes that digital competencies should be increasingly anchored in training curricula as well as in degree and continuing education curricula. [7]

Living independently longer thanks to the internet

Use of delivery services and services

The internet offers many advantages, especially for "silver surfers". Digital offers could help them to live self-determined lives for as long as possible, even if their mobility is limited. For example, seniors can order and organise the goods and services they need every day online and communicate actively with family and friends via smartphone or laptop. [6]

Use of digital health services

The willingness of the 65-plus generation for offers in the area of digital health solutions is growing. Two out of four internet users aged 65 and over (38 percent) now have reminders for doctor's appointments sent to them by text message or e-mail, and another 53 percent can imagine doing so. 37 percent already make such appointments online, two out of five (42 percent) would do so in the future. One in five communicates with their doctor via e-mail (21 percent) or messenger (19 percent), and another 48 percent and 46 percent can imagine doing so. Telemedical monitoring is used today by 6 percent of the online senior citizens, half (50 percent) would do so in the future. Digital health services, which will only be available in the coming years, also meet with great interest among older internet users. For example, more than one in two (53 percent) can imagine using the electronic patient file, 40 percent the e-prescription. "Digitisation in the health sector can improve medical care and significantly reduce the risk of infection, for the elderly who are particularly at risk from Corona ", says Berg. "Many seniors show an impressive openness to digital health solutions." [8]

  2. Press Release | ARD/ZDF Research Commission (
  3. JIM_2019.pdf (
  5. Infographic: Every second person makes phone calls via WhatsApp and Co. | Statista
  7. How older people use digital technologies - We, the ageing specialists ! (
  8. Older people lack digital competence (