Internet connectivity and older Australians

How widespread is the problem of digital literacy and confidence in Australia's senior citizens?

Image of Rosalind McNamara
By Rosalind McNamara

Digital rights for seniors

Internet connectivity has transformed human communications forcing a seismic shift in evolutionary behaviour – and it's happened in the blink of an eye. 1993 was the first year Australia's public servants were given desktop computers (not then web connected). Fast forward to 2017 and the soft swell of web connectivity has become a king tide – it's sink or swim.

Just ask Ian Rottenberry, a retired bricklayer in his mid-60s. He's worked hard all his life, raised two kids, is fit and strong and can fix just about anything. In many ways, Ian's your quintessential Aussie bloke. He's navigated life's ups and downs with hard work and good humour – but no amount of either have helped him to navigate the digital revolution. Ian can barely use his smartphone.

Learn how to protect your online privacy and brush up on the latest scams with our online safety guide.

In this article we look at:

Web connectivity for Australians 65+

Ian is not alone. A lack of know-how is the harsh reality for many of the estimated 3.6 million Australians (19% of the adult population) aged 65 and over. Some are lucky – they have friends or family to help them search a site, pay a bill, or make a purchase. 

But spare a thought for those who don't; they're effectively locked out from the cyber realm where business and government increasingly administer essential services like banking, insurance, Medicare, even power and water account management. And that's before we consider news, entertainment and social media – the things that keep us connected to others; the things that might keep older Australians from loneliness.

Suddenly web connectivity is an essential resource, a vital skill for survival. Tarzan in the jungle may once have fought lions to survive into old age – a modern metaphor might show a retired brickie named Ian wrangling a smartphone.

What are the rights of older Australians?

Though no specific laws exist regarding older Australians and their legal rights to web connectivity, the United Nations Principles for Older Persons encourages governments to ensure that older persons should:

  • have access to appropriate educational and training programmes
  • remain integrated in society
  • be able to pursue opportunities for the full development of their potential
  • have access to the educational, cultural, spiritual and recreational resources of society.

In 2017 web connectivity is key in facilitating the rights expressed above. There has been some action by government and other organisations to support the demographic in learning skills, but some significant hurdles remain.

How widespread is the problem?

According to the ABS, in 2014–15, 85% of people aged 15 and over were internet users (meaning they accessed the internet for personal use in a typical week). However, the 65+ group had the lowest proportion of users at just 51%. Further, that group spent the lowest mean hours online (seven hours per week).

These are troubling statistics says Mark Young, an advocate for ageing Australians and technology who works with seniors daily at the Australian Seniors Computer Clubs Association (ASCCA).

"A major barrier for some seniors is that they dislike change. They were comfortable in the world they grew up in, and now a new world has come along that they don't understand – they don't see why they should. For a person that has been quite capable with the technology of their time, being a beginner again and risking looking foolish is not something that adults want to do," says Young.

Ian Yates is the Chief Executive of COTA Australia, the national peak body for older Australians. There are COTAs (Councils on the Ageing) in each state and territory. Yates agrees that statistics on web usage for the 65+ group will identify lower engagement, but cautions that the ABS figures are lower than he would expect – possibly due to the way in which data is organised by the grouping of age brackets.

"Note that the population under 65 is reported in 10-year cohorts at most. Everyone 65–105 is lumped together. This is typical ageism. If we had figures for 65–74; then 75–84; then 85–94; then 95–104; then you would see different levels of usage," he says.

Yates would like to see more in-depth research to understand all aspects of resistance and incentive. "We observe widespread use in grandparents whose grandchildren do not live near them. They use Facebook and Skype. If the grandchildren are nearby, there is not the same incentive," Yates explains.

Young agrees that an element of interest can be a powerful driver. "The most successful senior students we see are those that find an interest they can follow using technology: Facebook, family history, photos, making cards, playing games, reading books."

Cyber safety and scamming

Cyber safety and scamming is a valid fear according to recent figures from the ACCC's 2016 Scamwatch, which show that in 2016, online scams were highest in the 65+ bracket (over 20,000 reports resulting in over $13 million lost).

Similar evidence from the Australian Institute of Criminology (AIC) makes the same finding – that Australians over the age of 65 are more likely to be victims of online financial fraud than any other age group.

"Seniors are very worried about scams, but paradoxically, this can make them more vulnerable," says Young, who actively engages in teaching seniors security skills at ASCCA.

"Scams often try to provoke panic by telling you that someone is stealing your money or that your computer has a virus. They may try to have you rush into clicking or giving your details out. It takes time for seniors to learn that they are in control. They should take time to think about it logically and ask someone with computer experience before they click."

Cost and access to tech

Many seniors may consider the cost of tech to be too high – especially in an era where new and improved products continually hit the market and gadgets are made to be updated every few years.

This fast turnaround can represent considerable learning challenges as well as financial stress for older people, many of whom are managing life on retirement budgets or are dependent on benefits.

"The best that many low-income people can afford is a prepaid mobile phone. A computer is too expensive. People often ask us about an inexpensive internet service but there really aren't any. People that once had dial up for $10 a month now need to pay $20 or $30 on ADSL or NBN. And this would be in addition to their mobile phone which is needed for emergency calls," says Young.

Seniors-specific devices and plans

We found few examples of seniors-specific smartphone plans – probably because a senior's needs aren't very different to others. However, there are a number of providers – notably Amaysim and Aldi – that offer pay-as-you-go plans with no lengthy contracts.

If you haven't made the leap, it's probably a good time to get a smartphone. Come September 2017, 2G services will no longer be available in Australia on any network. If your phone is old, it may no longer work. You may also have an old 2G SIM card – that will need an upgrade too. Take your phone instore if you are unsure.

Once you learn to use a smartphone, you can replace the home phone to minimise bills. The benefits include being able to take it anywhere, web search, communicating via email and social media, and video calls.

We look at mobiles made especially for seniors and compare them with some popular smartphones to find which is best in our mobile phones for seniors review.

What's being done to assist seniors?

While there are some programs and resources to assist the 65+ group with web connectivity, Ian Yates from COTA says government needs to offer more incentives for seniors, including financial incentives for pensioners.

Both Yates and Young have serious concerns that people without skills and access are being locked out.

"For a time, seniors could ignore the new gadgets, but that's becoming harder," says Young, who recounted a story of a man who rang the ASCCA office wanting the phone number for his local Centrelink office. "He didn't have a computer or any web skills. I said I'd look it up for him. On his local Centrelink office site, it said to give them your email address and they would email the number. He was effectively locked out."

And it's not just government services. COTA wants the government to recognise that not all businesses makes their services accessible to people without web connection and raise the important point that service providers should be banned from charging for paper bills, accounts and information if the client is not connected on the basis it is unfair.

Resources to help Australians 65+ learn web skills


  • Be Connected
  • As of October 2017, the Be Connected – Digital Literacy for Older Australians program is the government's main offering to help Australians 50+ gain free tech skills. The Be Connected website includes resources and presentations about issues like cyber safety, scams, online banking and social media, among others. The scheme also supports local community organisations already working to improve digital literacy with support for training, events, learning content and funding applications. 

  • ACCC's Scamwatch
  • Visit the scamwatch website to learn about keeping safe online and to find out about the latest scams. If you're a victim of a suspected scam, the ACCC has a form page where you can report it.

  • Stay Smart Online
  • Stay Smart Online involves more than 50,000 individuals and organisations committed to sharing online safety information.

Non-government and government partnerships

  • Australian Seniors Computer Clubs Association (ASCCA)
  • ASCCA is a national network of computer clubs whose mission is to educate Australia's seniors in using computers via seminars, training sessions and workshops. Run by volunteers, ASCCA provides classes at a low cost.

  • Buy a cheap refurbished computer
  • WorkVentures and The Tech Shed are two organisations that sell refurbished computers at cheap prices with a focus on seniors and pensioners. They also offer tech support.

  • Tech savvy seniors (TSS)
  • Created by Telstra in partnership with the New South Wales, Queensland and Victorian governments, TSS offers free or low-cost training in local libraries and community colleges.

  • Go Digi
  • Infoxchange and Australia Post have come together to form Go Digi, a national, four-year digital literacy program with the goal of supporting Australians to improve their digital skills.

Connection in retirement villages an aged care homes

CHOICE has received reports of people being forced to use the provider on offer by the home or village. As in any situation where you want to piggyback off an account using Wi-Fi, you'll need to use the default provider.

If you're unhappy with this option, consider buying a dongle (a small connectivity gadget that plugs into your computer and facilitates web connection), or tethering your smartphone to your gadget (thereby using your phone's mobile provider and data plan if you have one) – but we wary. Pending usage, the default provider might be cheaper, especially if you're streaming videos or downloading a lot of data.