Bridging the Digital Divide: Tablets for Older Adults

Use of computers and similar technology has been associated with decreased feelings of loneliness and depression, and increased feelings of independence and personal growth; however, a number of barriers exist for older adults’ use of these technologies. In particular, many older adults face the obstacles of limited access to such technologies as well as a lack of expertise. Older adults are currently the segment of the population least likely to use or have access to the Internet. This has become known as “the digital divide” between generations. However, technology is changing and a number of new products such as tablet computers promise simplified interfaces that require less expertise to enjoy the benefits offered by such technology. A recent study titled “Getting Grandma Online: Are Tablets the Answer for Digital Inclusion for Older Adults in the U.S.?” examines whether tablets can conquer the barrier of low technological expertise, and looks at the impacts of tablet technology on older adults’ lives.

This study involved in-depth interviews of 21 older adults in independent living communities whose age ranged from 69 to 91, and focused on the use of technology and skills in using tablet technology. The study also paid particular attention to what is known as technological self-efficacy: older adults’ belief in their ability to use new technologies and anxiety surrounding new technology.

This examination of tablet use first looked at how older adults decided to acquire a tablet computer. Of the study’s participants, 38 percent received their tablet from their families; forty-seven percent had seen others using a tablet and decided to purchase one for themselves; and 19 percent decided to purchase a tablet after trying other people’s tablets. The low percentage of those who tried tablets before buying could be a result of the newness of tablet computers, but some participants also mentioned that they were reluctant to let others try to use their tablets out of concern that users unfamiliar with tablets could result in the tablet’s settings becoming “messed up.”

Next, the study turned to the question of how older adults with tablet computers conquer the barrier of lacking technological self-efficacy. Importantly, 62 percent of those interviewed reported that their tablet’s interface was so intuitive that it was easy to use. A third of those who reported this were individuals who reported previously struggling to use a computer. This ease of use also increased the older adults’ confidence in performing tasks on a tablet. One participant stated, “I had a much more positive view of it than I ever had of a computer… Never one time [have I] felt that I was scared of it.” The participants also frequently praised the convenience, size, and portability of tablet computers.

Finally, the study looked at the impact of using tablet technology on the older adults’ lives. Here, 90 percent of the individuals in the study reported that the tablet helped them feel more connected with the world or their families. Around a third enjoyed using the tablet to go beyond telephone calls and interacting through Skype or Facetime. A majority also reported using the tablets for e-mail and sharing pictures with family and friends. Participants frequently reported using social networks on their tablets; they also mentioned receiving praise and positive comments from family for their tablet use. In addition to connecting with family and friends, 80 percent reported using the technology to read e-books, follow news events, and search for information. Fifty-seven percent reported that the tablet made them feel more current. Many reported using apps to keep up with topics and special interests that they felt were personally beneficial, such as sports, devotional studies, and health monitoring.

One of the participants concluded, “I think the older community should have it… everyone should have a tablet as opposed to a laptop or computer.” The researchers noted that “the older adults themselves were the most ardent promoters of the devices.” In light of the positive response to tablets and the small percentage of older adults in this study who had tried the devices before obtaining a tablet, these results suggest that more efforts be made to encourage older adults to try out this technology. However, even without this, the positive response to tablets by older adults and their promotion of this technology to others suggests that tablet use will continue to grow among older adults, bringing the benefits of technology to a greater portion of this population and reducing the digital divide.


Tsai HS, Shillair R, Cotton, SR, et al. Getting grandma online: are tablets the answer for increasing digital inclusion for older adults in the U.S.? Educational Gerontology. (2015). DOI: 10.1080/03601277.2015.1048165


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