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Research: Pandemic boosts older adults’ tech usage

April 22, 2021

In a year with a global pandemic significantly limiting social interaction, technology became more important than ever, especially for older adults, according to research from US seniors’ organisation AARP, which found that more older adults (44 per cent) view tech more positively as a way to stay connected than they did before Covid-19. In addition, four out of five adults age 50+ rely on technology to stay connected and in touch with family and friends.

Yet, the report, AARP 2021 Tech Trends, also found that the greater adoption and reliance on technology is uneven, as 15 per cent of adults 50+ do not have access to any type of Internet, and 60 per cent say the cost of high-speed Internet is a problem.

“Technology enabled older adults to better weather the isolation of the pandemic, from ordering groceries to telehealth visits to connecting with loved ones,” said Alison Bryant, Senior Vice President of Research at AARP, which is dedicated to empowering people 50 and older to choose how they live as they age. “But it also exacerbated the divide. So much more is done online, and the 38 million disconnected older adults are being further left out.”

Ownership in all devices is up, according to the survey. Older adults are buying smartphones, home assistant technology (such as Amazon’s Echo), wearable technology (including smartwatches), and tablets (such as iPads). And ownership is up across age groups. Not only are adults in their 50s buying devices; people in their 60s and 70s are buying more, too.

Adults 70-plus have a particular fondness for tablets, with more than half (53 per cent) owning one, up from 40 per cent in 2019. These tablets aren’t just sitting on a coffee table gathering dust: 69 per cent of those 70-plus said they use their tablets daily.

Spending is up significantly as well, with older adults spending on average $1,144 on tech, up from $394 in 2019. The top three tech purchases are smartphones, smart TVs, and Bluetooth headsets/earbuds.

Texting, email, social media, and video chatting have become commonplace as the Covid-19 pandemic has forced people to remain home, separated from friends and family. More than 80 per cent of those 50-plus said they use technology in some form to stay connected, many on a daily basis.

Perhaps credited with helping people maintain relationships during a period of unprecedented social distancing, technology gave older adults some good vibes, with 44 per cent saying they have a more positive feeling toward tech now than they did prior to the pandemic.

Older adults’ tech love won’t be fading in the future. In particular, those who discovered video conferencing anticipate using it even after the pandemic ends. Live virtual events also gained loyal fans. While content is the most important reason for attending a live virtual event, many indicated they will continue to tune in virtually even after it is safe to congregate in person.

Live events aren’t the only form of entertainment older adults are enjoying; they are also logging in more often to streaming services such as Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, and, more recently, Disney+. More older adults are also using smart TVs. In 2020, 64 per cent owned a smart TV, up from 49 per cent in 2019. Even among those 70 and older, more than half now own a smart TV.

The move to smart TVs also signals a significant shift in viewing habits. Viewers are moving away from traditional network and cable stations in favour of streaming options. Just 38 per cent of adults 50-plus said they primarily watched network and cable TV in 2020, a staggering drop from 60 per cent in 2019.

Even as more older adults are comfortable using technology for work, entertainment, and communication, secure Internet access is still a barrier. As in past years, the survey found barriers to high-speed Internet access. While 76 per cent of adults 50-plus have wireline high-speed Internet, 18 per cent do not have Internet access or only have access through their phone or satellite provider — and 5 per cent are not sure if they Internet connection at home. More than half of those in rural areas say access to high-speed internet is a problem for them.

Cost is also a concern. Six in 10 adults 50-plus, regardless of their residential location, said that the cost of high-speed Internet is a problem for them personally.

Beyond infrastructure, many still grapple with questions on how to use a device as well as how to protect their privacy. Approximately 44 per cent of older adults are not confident that what they do online remains private, and more than half are not confident the information they give to or receive from their smart home assistant stays private.

Key findings:

  • Annual tech spending by the 50+ exponentially increased – from $394 to $1144. The top three tech purchases were smartphones, smart TVs and earbuds/Bluetooth headsets.
  • Using technology to connect with others across multiple forms of communication has increased since the onset of the pandemic. Many say they are using video chats (45 per cent), texting (37 per cent), emailing (26 per cent), and phone (29 per cent) more now than before the pandemic. As of 2019, about half had never used video chat, but by 2020, 70 per cent have, with 1 in 3 using video chat weekly.
  • Tech use among the 50+ increased particularly in wearable devices – from 17 per cent to 27 per cent.
  • 50+ use of smartphones increased dramatically. For instance, use for ordering groceries grew from 6 per cent to 24 per cent; use for personal health increased from 28 per cent to 40 per cent for activities like telehealth visits, ordering prescriptions, or making appointments; use for health and fitness information increased 25 per cent to 44 per cent; and use for financial transactions increased 37 per cent to 53 per cent.
  • Half of the 50+ want to learn more about using tech (54 per cent).
  • Cost (38 per cent), awareness/lack of knowledge (37 per cent) and privacy concerns (34 per cent) are the top self-reported barriers holding the 50+ back from adopting new technology.
  • Privacy concerns continue to be a factor when it comes to tech, with 83 per cent lacking confidence that what they do online remains private.
  • Weekly use of streaming increased to 58 per cent from 44 per cent, a significant shift in how the 50+ consume entertainment.



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