Digital Media and Information Literacy for adults over 60: Five insights for media development | #mediadev | DW | 13.03.2024
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Digital Media and Information Literacy for adults over 60: Five insights for media development

Digital Media and Information Literacy is crucial, and not only for the young; older adults are also active online. What has research shown is important to consider for the digital media literacy of people over 60?

Two elderly women in a digital literacy course

Many older adults are turning to digital media and information sources

As media and information sources and distribution channels have multiplied over the past decades, Media and Information Literacy (MIL) has become ever more important. It aims to equip people with the competencies and skills to engage effectively and responsibly with media and information systems.¹ Digital sources in particular have grown exponentially, making the need for MIL skills on the digital front – Digital Media and Information Literacy (DMIL) – increasingly urgent.

In many world regions, it is no longer only the youthful segments of the population that access digital media. Older adults are also turning to digital media and information sources; sometimes out of necessity, such as when government services are moved online, and sometimes as leisure, for instance keeping in touch with family members via social media. However, the assumption is often that these older adults are less skilled, less capable and in need of interventions to get up to speed with digital media. This raises the question: Do people over 60 have the necessary competences to deal with digital media? And are they sufficiently considered in MIL and DMIL initiatives within media development approaches?

To answer these questions, we set out to review available studies on MIL for adults over 60. During our review, three limitations quickly became clear: First, that there are not many studies looking at the media literacy of older people. Second, the focus of many initiatives for older people is on digital media literacy rather than on media literacy in general. Third and most important, most of the studies so far are limited to countries located in the Global North. Therefore, we have an incomplete picture of the situation across the world. Nevertheless, from the studies that we did find, we identified five important aspects worth keeping in mind for anyone thinking about enhancing older adults’ digital media and information literacy:

1. Adults over 60 are not homogenous

Group of senior friends having a video call

Some older adults are highly skilled in using digital media – and enjoy it

In general, people over 60 years of age are categorized as older adults based on their chronological age. Often, distinct age demarcations for digital literacy initiatives end at 60 or 65, with those above this age all lumped together as one group e.g. ‘over 65’ or ’60 +’. These older adults are often conceptualized as being less skilled, less capable and in need of interventions to get up to speed with digital media. However, our review of studies on digital media literacy among this age group has revealed that this neat categorization of skill level based on chronological age does not hold as far as DMIL is concerned. Rather than being a technologically challenged group in general, older adults have varying levels of knowledge and skill in using digital media, and different motivations and levels of interest in their use of digital technology. Even within the same country, research has found digital media use to be quite diverse among this group.

In Sweden, for example, one of the most digitally connected countries globally, adults in the 80-85 years old bracket were found to use the internet much less frequently than those between 60 and 80 years of age.² Not surprisingly, perhaps, the internet use of those between 60-64 years old was already on par with the rest of the population by 2014. In Iceland, research found³ that there was more information-seeking on the internet by older adults in 2012 as compared to 2002, but the 60-67 age group was more critical of the information in 2012 than in 2002. These findings underline the fact that within the ‘over 60’ group, digital skills vary both in terms of access and in terms of evaluating the information received via digital means.

2. Age is not the most important factor in determining digital media use

A child and an elderly woman with a rollator in Morocco

Physical and mental health, as well as the social context are important factors in determining digital media use

It became apparent from the review that age is NOT the most important factor in determining digital media use among older adults. Instead, social characteristics and factors such as level of education seem to matter more. In one study, older adults with low educational attainment, deteriorated health and memory and living alone were found to be at highest danger of digital exclusion.⁴ In a German study⁵ of adults aged between 65 and 90 years old, those who were male, younger, and held an academic degree tended to have broad and more skilled internet use. Similarly, a Swedish study⁶ showed that for people aged between 66 and 85, general internet habits, sex and political interest were the most important determinants of whether people accessed news online. A cross-national study⁷ comparing seniors in Canada, the Netherlands, Spain and Sweden found that age seemed to be the least significant factor in determining smartphone use patterns. Rather, national policies, sociocultural context and educational attainment seemed to be more significant. Different groups among older adults used the internet (accessed through their smartphones) for different functions ranging from games and leisure to life management tasks such as internet banking.

What does this tell us? First, while age is not the key determinant of the level of digital media and information literacy, it can certainly amplify the difficulties in information access and interpretation for vulnerable groups (e.g. those with limited education and less supportive social contexts). Secondly, (formal) education matters for the use of the internet. Considering that literacy levels vary across the globe, with females disproportionately less educated than males in many world regions, it is important to consider enhancing basic literacy in the first place, even while working on enhancing digital literacy skills. Furthermore, a deliberate focus on marginalized or otherwise disadvantaged groups for DMIL would be important. It would be well worth considering approaches to address social inequalities in addition to approaches that enhance digital and media information literacy. Thirdly, education, physical and mental health, and social context all contribute to competent use of digital media. As such, it is important to conceptualize holistic interventions that look at the whole person and their social circumstances, including national policies in their context, not only at their digital media access and use.

3. Digital media use and social ties go hand in hand

An elderly Chinese couple reading the newspaper together

An elderly couple reading the newspaper in Rugao, China, a city renowned for the longevity of its residents

In a UK study⁸ carried out to assess an initiative equipping older adults living in the same neighborhood with digital skills, it became clear that in a geographically small context, even nowadays there is value in meeting face to face, and physical interactions are in fact preferred to meeting online. Similarly, in a study carried out in rural Finland,⁹ researchers found that digital competence is best understood as a shared skill experienced in one’s social setting consisting of elderly couples, families with three generations and informal networks of villagers, rather than as an individual characteristic.

Therefore, digital technology and its use should be thought of as part of one’s repertoire of social ties, such that it can in some way fit into pre-existent social ties and habits. It seems to work best complementing other interactions rather than replacing them. When thinking of DMIL programs in particular communities, it is important to map the existent habits and ties of the older adults targeted by such initiatives, in order to better understand which kind of digital media competences can add value to their already existent contexts. Given that they may have more time on their hands compared to younger age groups, older adults may be more inclined to engage in physical rather than in virtual interactions. This is of value in itself and should not necessarily be replaced by digital skills.

4. The need to acquire digital skills should not be assumed

While DMIL is thought of as an essential set of competencies to ensure digital citizenship, the question of whether all older adults are willing to acquire these competencies and engage in the digital world in the first place should not be overlooked.

A child shows an elderly person how to use a tablet

Younger family members can help with navigating the digital sphere

Separate studies in Italy,¹⁰ Taiwan¹¹ and Australia¹² all showed that sometimes older adults are not open to learning more digital skills or using them. For some, the fact that their younger family members could carry out digital tasks on their behalf was reason enough to not want to go the extra mile to learn new skills at an advanced age. For others, there was a reluctance to engage in social media cultures such as selfie-taking because it went against their values, interests and needs. For yet another group, learning digital technology and using multimedia messages was not most strongly linked to age, education, or gender, but rather, to an accepting attitude towards technology and the perceived usefulness of the new skills to daily life.

The above findings underline the fact that digital competences are not a one-size-fits-all, and that there needs to be demonstrable added value to daily life to justify having to learn new digital skills. Sometimes older adults are also reluctant to engage in some social media cultures due to a mismatch with their values, interests or needs. This highlights the fact that digital inclusion and participation are not just about access, use or skills; non-usage associated with social and generational norms is a reality to keep in mind.

5. Diverse media use, varied impact

Like other age groups, adults over 60 use multiple media, not only digital media. The impact of this diverse media use varies depending on prior media literacy skills, the competences one has, and the content accessed.

Two elderly men reading a newspaper in India

The ability to access, analyze, create, and share news across multiple media was found to be fundamental for social participation

For instance, two separately conducted studies on the media repertoires of older adults had quite different results. In one study,¹³ carried out in the USA, using television as a primary news source was linked to more resilience against online misinformation. In Ukraine, however, a study on similar aspects¹⁴ had the opposite results: The study showed that consuming old media, particularly Russian television, was linked to more susceptibility to disinformation and misinformation. As such, it is not about which type of media channels are accessed, but about the content they offer. In a Korean study,¹⁵ lower digital media literacy was linked to higher levels of loneliness with increased social media use. And in Spain,¹⁶ the ability to access, analyze, create, and share various types of messages in different formats across these multiple media was found to be fundamental for social participation and personal fulfilment of senior citizens. As such, digital media literacy seems to matter as a factor in whether media access has positive or negative impact.

So, what does all this mean for media development interventions in the field of DMIL?

First of all, targeted approaches tailored to different sub-groups within the broader ‘over 60’ category would be most appropriate. Differences including education level, existent internet habits, prior media literacy, and, importantly, social inequalities, should all be taken into account. A nuanced rather than a one-size-fits-all approach is key.

Secondly, DMIL may not be the best fit in some situations. Ascertaining the usefulness of DMIL for older adults’ daily lives in a particular context is an important first step in deciding whether to implement an intervention or not. Interventions for people over 60 may be most suitable with a broader focus encompassing a range of MIL skills rather than focusing solely on DMIL skills.

Thirdly, efforts to enhance the DMIL of older adults should not only focus on enhancing their individual skills, but should also take into account the broader information environment they live in. While individual competences matter, supporting an enabling environment is equally important.

In conclusion, while there are still gaps in what we know about older adults and digital media literacy, these reflections underline that we need a more nuanced view of people over 60 and what they bring to the table. Older adults are not always in need of interventions or disadvantaged when it comes to using digital technology. On the contrary, they have strengths that are often overlooked and untapped including more time and more life experience. Any attempts to enhance their DMIL should take a nuanced approach that considers their contexts, social characteristics, pre-existing knowledge and levels of interest in gaining such competencies.




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³ Pálsdóttir, Á. (2016, January 3). Senior citizens, media and information literacy and health information.


⁴ Heponiemi, T., Virtanen, L., Kaihlanen, A.-M., Kainiemi Päivikki Koponen, E., & Koskinen, S. (2022). Use and changes in the use of the internet for obtaining services among older adults during the COVID-19 pandemic: A longitudinal population-based survey study. New Media & Society, 14614448221097000.


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