Digital divide faced by elderly underscores need for civil attention

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With rapid digital development, more senior citizens now own smartphones and can access the internet. In addition to advantages in faster communication, senior citizens face problems brought by the modern technology, such as over-relying on the internet and still being subjected to the digital divide.

According to the “47th Statistical Report of China’s Internet Development,” published by the China Internet Network Information Center, the number of internet users in China has reached 989 million by the end of 2020. It is worth noting that the increase of internet users amongst minors and senior citizens is bigger than among younger adults.

Messaging apps have provided senior citizens with more choices in communication. In addition to messaging, functions such as voice call and video chat have made it ever available to get in touch with family and friends. Through these channels, it is believed that the senior citizens are able to receive more information than otherwise, as well as mental support through talking to people in their close circles.

But some senior citizens now spend excessive time on the phone, and some even face addiction problems. More senior citizens indulge themselves in browsing short videos and playing virtual games, contributing to irregular and unhealthy lifestyles.

Despite the growing number of internet users, senior citizens still experience the digital divide. Many businesses in China, even a stall by the street, now promote digitalisation including online payment and shopping. Yet, many senior citizens are not familiar with those procedures. For example, some senior citizens do not know how to make electronic payment in places where cash is no longer welcomed.

“It is inconvenient everywhere during the pandemic if you do not know how to operate a smartphone,” said an anonymous older adult, believing it is not an exaggeration.

In 2020, the government introduced the electronic health code, an indicator of personal health status based on travel history and contact for disease control. The code is required in almost every public space, including markets and hospitals. But many senior citizens are unfamiliar with the technology on smartphones, and they could not acquire the skill as quickly as younger adults.

To cope with this issue, Liu Shuangqing of China University of Political Science and Law suggested the community and social organisations set up educational workshops and community events for senior citizens.

Liu said that the lack of face-to-face interaction for senior citizens could be one reason for internet addiction. Yet, there are some activities that can guide the senior citizens to effectively use modern technologies and make them more engaged with their local communities. Through participating in workshops and events, senior citizens can spare themselves from phones and the internet. They can also socialise and study with each other in the community.