Elderly & ICT usage: the curious case of the faux-users

Fausto Amaro and I just published our article “Too old for technology? How the elderly of Lisbon use and perceive ICT” in the Journal of Community Informatics, edited by fabulous Gene Loeb & Michael Gurstein.

It is an article based on our study of ICT usage and perception by the Portuguese elderly. Here, we explore concepts of technophobia and ageism, and we develop the concept of “faux-users”.

What is a faux-user? It is a person that considers himself or herself a non-user but intermittently uses a technology with assistance of others.

During the qualitative phase of the study, we found elderly people that although do not use the Internet (and report not using it) directly, use it indirectly with the assistance of others.

Meet Ana.

Ana is 70 years old, she has no formal education, she is currently a retired servant, and lives alone. Ana has a daughter and a baby grandchild living in Paris. She has never met her grandchild in person. Ana sees pictures of them on a family member’s computer (sent by her daughter via email) and communicates with her daughter in Paris through Skype, a peer-to-peer video conferencing program. Ana’s family members in Portugal setup the computer and the Internet for her so she can communicate with her family in Paris:

“In these moments, there is always someone with me at the computer, because I’m afraid of touching something and ruin it. I can’t read, so I don’t know what the words mean. But I can see them and talk to them. And they can see me and talk back to me…it’s amazing!”

Meet Clara.

Clara is 74 years old, and she is a retired domestic with primary school education. She lives with her husband and three grandchildren. One of her grandchildren, Matilde, is studying abroad in Milan. Clara speaks regularly with her grandchild through Skype, which is setup by her other grandchildren. They show her pictures of Milan and pictures of Matilde on facebook. But like Ana, Clara never touches the computer and depends on her grandchildren to set the computer up for her.

So, these faux users are making indirect use of these technologies and benefiting from them.

This was, definitely, a curious finding for us. It was something that we could not grasp from our survey research of 500 elderly people, but that was possible to grasp during the qualitative interviews.

Please check the article and leave me your feedback. All comments are highly appreciated! 🙂

Note: I found recently that the World Internet Project (WIP) uses the term “proxy-users” to refer to people who look for information online on behalf of others (WIP, 2010, pg. 10-11, 23, 28; Dutton & Helsper, 2007, pg. 4, 48, 51-52), but I found other WIP publications that seem to use the concept to refer to the non-users who get help from others (WIP Chile, 2005; OberCom, 2009). In the first case, WIP Poland reports “The most popular proxy-user is a child -2/3 of those non-users who have Internet access at home, ask this child for help or the child tells them about Internet on their own initiative” (WIP, 2010:28). However, I could not find an “official” definition of proxy-user.

Dutton, W., & Helsper, E. (2007). The Internet in Britain: 2007. Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford.
WIP Chile. (2004). World Internet Project Chile 2003/2004.
WIP Poland. (2010). World Internet Project Poland. Agora SA & TP Group.
WIP Portugal. (2010). A utilização de Internet em Portugal 2010.

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