Digital Immigrants in Theory, Internet Users in Practice

Digital Immigrants in Theory, Internet Users in Practice: Towards a Situated Understanding of Ageing and Technology
Ilinca Barsan, University of Edinburgh

“Yes, I never miss a day that I don’t use it,” one participant in my research, Eleanor, told me when I asked her whether she was a regular Internet user, and she added: “Hard to imagine without it now.” Sometimes, instead of going next door, she will just email her friend Sophia; Eleanor uses her laptop more than her TV, and she’s an avid online shopper. The Internet is firmly embedded in her everyday life.

At first glance, this seems hardly surprising. After all, in contemporary Western society, the Internet assumes a central role, facilitating the exchange of information, services, and communication since its dawn in the 1970s. In the UK, most adults nowadays consider themselves regular Internet users. In 2014, 38 million people—76 percent of all adults in the UK—were accessing the Internet everyday according to the Office for National Statistics. With only eight percent never having accessed the Internet, a certain stigma surrounds those amongst us who neither access nor use the Internet, and not coincidentally, these people often belong to social groups already marginalised in society: the poor, the uneducated, and the old.

Eleanor is 77 years old, she’s retired, and she has been living in sheltered housing for the last eight years. The Internet use of older people has increased during the last decades, but nevertheless, age is still one of the biggest factors when looking at gaps in Internet use; a lack of access and use among older generations creates the so-called “grey” digital divide, which leaves a majority of older adults disconnected. So whilst Eleanor is perfectly representative of our information age, she is certainly not representative of her age. Numbers vary with sources, but they all tell us that only approximately 40 percent of older adults are using the Internet in the UK regularly.

Those 40 percent belong to a group which Prensky controversially labeled “digital immigrants” in 2001. Whilst able to learn how to use the Internet to a certain extent, they will never reach a native level of technology use, always preferring other means to access information and maintain communication.

Based on 13 semi-structured interviews conducted on sheltered housing sites in Edinburgh, UK, my study of the role of the Internet in the lives of older adults questions this controversial theoretical distinction. The data collected illustrates the importance of social background for Internet use later in life, which also shapes how older adults use digital technology to access information, communication, and services. It further shows that older adults are capable of appropriating technology and adopting a digital habitus, with the Internet often assuming a central role in their lives. Adopting a Bourdieuian approach to the digital, this paper aims to expand the study of ageing and technology towards a more diverse understanding, firmly rooted in the experiences of older adults rather than the theoretical dichotomy of competent digital natives on the one side, and digital immigrants displaying a strong immigrant accent on the other. Placing older adults into the value-ridden theoretical box of digital immigrants cannot accommodate the complexity of empirical reality. Instead, we need to listen to how older Internet users make sense of their Internet use and embed it into their social lives if we want to bridge the digital generation gap.

Ilinca Barsan

University of Edinburgh