Computer Literacy and Age

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In my day job, I help members of the public complete online applications. I’ve noticed that generally, older people are more likely to have trouble working with the computer.

I tell them to check their email and they type their email address in the search bar rather than typing google.com or yahoo.com and signing in from the home page. Some of the older people actually tell me when they start out that they are “computer illiterate.”

Today, I started to wonder if there is something about the human brain that keeps us from learning new things the older we get.

There are studies that show young people who grew up with computer technology have brains that are wired differently. Is there something about growing up with screen time that changes how readily people learn and understand how to use a computer?

Yet I have met a number of older applicants who walk in our office, sit down at the computer and have no questions or problems. Sometimes if it’s busy and I can’t help everyone, they help someone else. Once in a while, they even do something I don’t know how to do, like changing the size of the print in the viewer.

Other times, a young person, under 50, even the occasional person in their 20s, usually a man, will admit to being computer illiterate and I’ll walk them through most of the steps.

In my novel, several characters are over a century old. Would they be computer literate?

I’ve decided that they would, if they chose to be. It might be even true that unusually long-lived characters would be better at using technology. They’ve seen more history unfold and they may have a long-term outlook. They know the technology is not going away and neither are they.

I get the feeling some of the older people who declare themselves computer illiterate don’t feel there’s any point in learning new things. They don’t believe they have much time left.

Is this true?  Let me know what you think or what you’ve observed.

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2 responses to “Computer Literacy and Age

  1. I think it’s confirmation bias. The demographic that actually visits an office in person is going to be less educated, on average, than the demographic that doesn’t. What’s more, is the older a person is the less likely they are to be educated and far less likely to have a technological education. Social isolation and the amount of free time they have probably plays a big part in it too.

    There are computer use skills that we take for granted–things as simple as using a mouse, typing, understanding that there are multiple windows and that you can switch between then, understanding that there are different texts fields within windows, and rudimentary data entry that are barriers to entry. It really is like learning a new language and being “illiterate” is probably not something that will change for most of them, especially if they don’t have to change.

    • You make great points here. The people who live in Alaska may also have a more practical education or be more likely to be isolated. Due to our hours, some people may be in our office after working a night shift, and be more prone to mistakes. I didn’t take all those factors into account.

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