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Bridging The Digital Divide For Older Americans

Shelia Cotten photo
Courtesy photo
Shelia R. Cotten is a Professor in the MSU College of Communication Arts and Sciences Department of Media and Information

We’ve all heard it: if you can’t figure out how to use your computer, ask a teenager for help. It seems that some older people find modern technology confusing and frustrating. A professor at Michigan State University has done extensive research into what the elderly get out of their tablets and smart phones, and how they might find greater fulfillment in our modern gadgets.

Last year, Saturday Night Live devoted one of their fake ads to a smart device for older folks who not only have trouble with today’s technology, but can’t even remember the name Alexa to use a smart device.

All kidding aside, there is some truth to the notion that today’s technology leaves some people behind. Shelia Cotten of the MSU College of Communication Arts and Sciences Department of Media and Information is looking into how we might shrink that digital divide.

For the purposes of her research, Cotten considers those age 65 and older.

When it comes to today’s tech, Cotten says there’s a stigma to “not getting it.” She explains that "Some older adults don’t want to appear that they can’t learn this new technology or these constantly changing technologies, and so for some of them, that may limit their willingness to use.”

Cotten’s 15 years of research has revealed that if older adults are shown how new technology can be relevant in their lives, they become more willing to at least try to learn.

Cotten says that while that new technology can be a source of frustration, mastering a new skill can also become a source of pride. “The interfaces are constantly changing," Cotten continues. "You’re having to update passwords, which is a huge challenge for many older adults. These constant changes require older adults to be able to change, too. After a certain age, your cognitive ability starts to decline just a little bit, and it gets harder for you to pick up new things or to constantly change as the technologies are evolving.”

According to Cotten, the visual element added to the old-fashioned phone call to faraway relatives by using Skype or Facetime can be a motivator for some to learn. For others, these technological challenges can bring them together with children and grandchildren because that’s often who they reach out to for help. Cotten calls it a “catlystic connection.”

Shelia Cotten hopes older Americans won’t give up on technology. Ask for help from relatives or others if that’s what it takes. Her message: the elderly have much to gain by trying. “The potential is so huge in terms of finding information, whether it’s health information or other types of information, to connecting with loved ones, to finding old friends," Cotten concludes. "There’s so many things that they can do through using these devices that I encourage them to try learn more about the devices so that they can use them to help them advance their lives.”

Scott Pohl has maintained an on-call schedule reporting for WKAR following his retirement after 36 years on the air at the station.
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