Exploring How Older Adults Learn New Technology

The so-called “digital divide” has been an area of focus for many researchers hoping to develop strategies to increase literacy in technology use (among older adults in particular). In a novel approach to this problem, researchers investigated how older adults naturally learn to use new technology, specifically tablet computers.

The researchers conducted interviews with 20 older adults from independent and assisted living communities who had reported acquiring a tablet. Some respondents who had bought a tablet reported being confident and excited to use the new device, while others who had received the device as a gift were more hesitant. Most, however, reported the devices were easy to use.

Social support factors played a significant role in enabling respondents to learn how to use a tablet. Support from family, often from children or grandchildren, was the most common source of support, but support from professionals or peers was reported as well. Interestingly, the most learning tended to come from “playing around” with the device. This technique of trial and error is useful for individuals of any age to learn something new, and in this setting, it appears to work well with older adults.

The researchers noted that a combination of ease of use, social support, and time to play around with the tablet was the key to learning for these individuals. The support system allowed participants to be confident enough to explore and learn new things about the device, while not having to worry they would come to a problem they couldn’t solve. While this study focused on learning to use tablets, the results may be generalizable to other new technologies that older adults could benefit from learning to use.



Tsai HS, Shillair R, and Cotton SR. Social support and “playing around”: An examination of how older adults acquire digital literacy with tablet computers. Journal of Applied Gerontology (2017); 36(1): 29-55.


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