Marginalized, victimized, and unaware: Cyber security threats, age cohort and the second digital divide


The impact of the digital divide is a concern for many stakeholders; in many ways it functionally isolates those who don’t have the resources to go online. However, crossing that divide opens individuals up to online safety threats. These threats can range from multi-modal personalized scams to stealthy malware. Facing these dangers can be particularly stressful for those who are more vulnerable, such as older adults or those with weaker educational backgrounds. However, these threats are not just a danger to Internet newbies. Anyone who is using the Internet but doesn’t follow basic digital hygiene runs the risk of becoming a victim or unwittingly becoming part of the problem. It is important for all technology users to have access to accurate and actionable information so they can protect themselves.  

There are many online safety websites designed to help individuals, but these are not well known and underutilized. Unlike other domains, such as health information, there are not always clear triggers to let individuals know that their computer or smart phone is compromised. Complicating the situation is that many individuals who have just crossed the digital divide have lower digital literacy levels and might not know where to begin to search for online safety information. This is especially true of older adults who may have been encouraged to go online by their family, but do not have much training in protecting themselves from online threats.

The first step to connecting individuals with the resources they need is to develop a better understanding of the search and selection process. My research project interviewed 21 individuals from three age cohorts: Millennials, Boomers, and Older Adults. These interviews probed the participants’ process of search, selection, trust, and digital literacy in the online safety domain.

Responses to triggers ranged from ignoring a trigger to actively seeking out detailed, actionable information from online forums. Those with lower digital literacy levels were more likely to ignore potential triggers and not seek information. Older adults were more likely to report that they limited their activities to protect themselves. Those who sought information had widely differing strategies for selecting sources than in other domains. Their selections of sources were influenced by their digital literacy and their normative use patterns. A higher level of coping self-efficacy was strongly tied to formal training in using computers. This training often came from classroom experience or required workplace online safety training. Trust in the source of information was important to the participants’ likelihood to believe or act on the information. Increased perception of the severity of threat resulted in a more fatalistic attitude; these individuals were less likely to look for ways to protect themselves unless they had high digital literacy levels. On the other hand, increased susceptibility (e.g., likelihood of an event happening to them) was more likely to result in the taking protective action.

This research proposes a new theoretical model for communication strategies in the online safety/ cybersecurity realm. This model recommends messages that give clear and actionable information and a focus on improving end user confidence. This is in contrast to many current efforts that try to frighten individuals into compliance. It is essential that as we reduce the digital divide we also look for ways to improve digital literacy and give individuals the tools they need to protect themselves online. This research helps to achieve this goal as we examine how individuals take their first step to that end.


Ruth Shillair
Ruth Shillair