Many seniors avoid the snare of the Net

Holdouts: The aversion that a large number of older people have to using computers is creating a digital generation gap.

April 04, 2002|By Tim Madigan | Tim Madigan,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

On a frigid February morning, Willard Lloyd circles the pool table, contemplating both his next shot and his ingrained status as an Internet holdout.

"I don't know a damn thing about it, and I don't need it," Lloyd grumbles while chalking his cue at the Grapevine (Texas) Senior Activities Center.

"I'm 81 years old. What do I need the Internet for? I've got a computer that Methuselah used, and I've learned to play some games on it, but when I've got to talk to someone, I can get on the phone and call my kids," Lloyd says.

"Why pay seven to eleven hundred dollars for something I don't really need," he continues, "plus all the expense of learning to use it."

Around the pool table, Lloyd's elderly partners harrumph in agreement. Their children and grandchildren might swear by life in the digital age, pestering old folks like them to get online, get an e-mail address and surf the Net. But why bother with e-mail when the phone will do? Why spend time navigating the World Wide Web when you could be shooting pool or gardening?

These sentiments are not unique to Lloyd and his pals in Grapevine. The aversion, in fact, runs rampant among senior citizens across the nation. According to recent surveys, about six in 10 American adults are now online, with the youngest among them the most enthusiastic. The surveys found about 90 percent Internet usage among those in their 20s.

Among those who are not online, the poor, minorities, the undereducated and rural Americans are overrepresented. But older people easily make up the largest percentage of the technological have-nots (or will-nots). About 90 percent of respondents age 65 and older are not online - and most of them have no intention of ever logging on, according to a 2000 survey by Pew Internet and American Life Project, a nonprofit research organization.

"The age factor was most surprising," says Lee Rainie, director of the Pew project. "In the 1990s it was not part of the news coverage and general policy discussions about the digital divide. You look at these numbers and the age issue jumps out so starkly. ... People say they have lived a significant chunk of their lives without the technology. They say when they need to talk to somebody, there are plenty of good alternatives that do not involve the Internet."

That's bad news for the flagging home computer and software industries. If the Internet ever reaches household penetration levels enjoyed by the telephone (94 percent) or television (98 percent), it appears the process will be one more of attrition than conversion. But that might say as much about computers and the Internet as it does about elderly reluctance, some industry observers say.

The truth is, despite all the digital hype in the past several years and the rush of many to log on, it is still possible to live quite comfortably and efficiently without ever sending a piece of e-mail or punching key words into a search engine, those experts say. That, as much as demographics, has caused the percentage of Internet users to plateau in the 60 percent range, says Steve Jones, a professor of communication technology at the University of Illinois-Chicago.

"The possibility is that we're still in need of another major innovation when it comes to the Internet," says Jones, president of the Association for Internet Researchers. "The telephone became a major household appliance, creating a mindset that no home should be without one. But if you took the computer out of the house, how would that affect what you could do? As they say in the industry, there is no killer ap [application].

"One of the things I think is important is that the computer today isn't much different than it was 20 years ago," Jones says.

Not that computers and Internet access can't improve quality of life, he and other observers say. It's hard to argue with the vast amount of information now available at a keystroke, or the ease with which people can now communicate or disseminate information. While the growth of e-commerce has lagged behind industry hopes, the Internet has greatly expanded opportunities for price comparison and product research.

The Grapevine Senior Activities Center has been giving computer instruction for three years, and seniors now fill up the facility's 10-computer lab for lessons. Such is the case at senior centers across the nation.

"When we started, the seniors were afraid," says Linda Gregory, director of the Grapevine center. "They didn't know what a mouse was. They didn't know how to turn one on. Now, in the halls I hear them talking about scanners."

An informal poll at the center found that about one in five were regular Internet users, ahead of the national average. The elderly Internet users keep up with grandkids online, locate old friends, or discover Web sites devoted to favorite hobbies.

But the majority echo Willard Lloyd's sentiments.

"I don't need it," he says. "And if I don't need it, how could I be missing something?"

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