Eugène Loos, Leslie Haddon and Enid Mante-Meijer

Eugène Loos, Leslie Haddon and Enid Mante-Meijer


Published in: E. F. Loos, L. Haddon & E. A. Mante Meijer, Generational Use of New Media (pp. 203-211). Aldershot: Ashgate.


Eugène Loos, Leslie Haddon and Enid Mante-Meijer

In Generational Use of New Media we presented the everyday new media practices of the younger and older generations inhabiting our multimedia landscape. They are all increasingly being confronted with new digital roadways intended to lead them to information about products and services that are relevant for them. One key question addressed in this volume is how we can help to guarantee the digital world is presented through new media in such a way that this remains accessible to and usable by these generations. But this has also required us consider more broadly and critically how both younger and older users engage with this new technological landscape. This has meant questioning some of the stereotypes about both an autonomous younger internet generation and technologically incapable older one, appreciating some of the social considerations as well as design ones that have a bearing upon the way that they interact with this multimedia landscape.

As we mentioned in the introduction of this volume, generations are only too often regarded as being homogenous entities. So, in Generational Use of New Media wealso questioned the assumption that younger people are all capable of using new media without any problem and that older people are all ‘non-liners’ (Duimel, 2007)[1] who are therefore cut off from the positive societal effects of new media use. We presented studies that provided insight into to the differences and the similarities between younger and older people using new media, such as websites, in their everyday life[2].And as individual differences increase as people age (‘aged heterogeneity’ – Dannefer, 1988: 360)[3] we also paid attention to the various sub-populations by presenting studies focusing on different groups of senior citizens.

In other words can we conclude that the multimedia landscape in which the younger and older generations live is characterised rather by a digital spectrum (Lenhart and Horrigan, 2003) than by a digital divide separating digital natives and digital immigrants (Prensky, 2001). To provide insight into the waysin which younger and older generations access and use digital information this three part volume presented the results of research projects from different countries.

In part I we presented studies conducted in the EU and Hong Kong to gain insight into the ways that younger people look at and use new media and what this means for the relationships between parents and children (the first three chapters) and students’ information literacy (chapter 4).

Haddon’s chapter ‘Parental Mediation of Internet Use: Evaluating Family Relationships’used EU Kids Online’s survey data and concluded:

The questions developed in this survey may not have been developed specifically to measure parent-child relations per se, but when combing different data, measuring a variety of dimensions, it is possible to build up some picture of those family relationships, at least a regards parental mediation of ICTs. Generally relationships appear to be positive, the interventions are regarded as helpful, they are often heeded (at least far more than would be anticipated in some accounts of rebellious teenagers) and appreciated.

In ‘Teenagers, the Internet and Morality’ –this volume’s second chapter – Bauwens who used and triangulated a multitude of data from the Belgian research project ‘Teens and ICT: Risks and Opportunities’ (TIRO) came to the following conclusion:

When it came to moral literacy, and especially when confronted with ethical questions that sharply impinged upon their personal identity, young people turned to lessons learned from adults in composing a toolkit for dealing with the social and cultural meaning of the internet, even if they imagined themselves among peers.

Then, in chapter 3, entitled ‘Family Dynamics and Mediation: Children, Autonomy and Control’ Cardoso, Espanha and Lapa paid attention to the parental-child relationship in Portugal. They draw on data from a nationwide face-to-face survey and an online survey which indicate a diversification of parental control on various fronts: from the TV to the mobile phone and from computer games to the internet. Their main conclusion was:

The family in the early 21st century is undergoing a process of reconfiguration and negotiated democratisation between parents and children. (…) The question that remains is whether the family as an institution will adopt these characteristics or fight against them because they erode traditional patriarchal power. Our analysis suggests that, in families where we find a shared appropriation of networked communication, we will witness less conflict and also a more balanced management of autonomy between parents and children. Looked at the other way, in households where mass communication prevails as the communicational model shared by parents and networked communication as the one shared by children, we will witness more conflict and fewer medium used in the shared construction of autonomy.

We ended the first part with the contribution ‘Digital Natives: Discourses of Exclusion in an Inclusive Society’ by Herold who focused not on children in families like the authors in the first three chapters but on the information literacy of students in Hong Kong belonging to the ‘digital generation’[4]. Hesuggested that their attitudes and skill levels ill-equip them for everyday life in our information society – they are not real digital natives:

The lack of skills and their inability and unwillingness to acquire necessary skills is masked by an increased use of ever more powerful, but also ever more easy to use, tools that allow students to produce superficially acceptable results with a minimum of effort or expertise. (…) Ironically, both sides in the debates around the abilities of the ‘digital generation’ are less concerned with the creation or emergence of an ‘inclusive’ society, and focus more on discourses of ‘exclusivity’. While the advocates of the high levels of technical skills among the ‘digital generation’ emphasise the exclusion of older people from crucial new developments in society, critics of the notion – me included – talk more about the (self)exclusion of young people from an increasingly digital society through their lack of knowledge and skills.

In this quotation Herold refers critically to the attention paid to the exclusion of older people and their lack of technical skills (see also chapter 9 by Van Deursen).

In the second part of our volume we presented studies from Sweden, the USA and Austria focusing on the way(s) in which new media can offer barrier free information to older people, bringing an inclusive society within reach.Here the focus is on the barriers that older people experience when they want to be active inhabitants of the multimedia landscape. The studies discussed how possibilities can be employed to use new media to facilitate their inclusion and to enhance their ‘self-efficacy’.

In chapter 5 ‘Being the Oldest Old in a Shifting Technology Landscape’ Hagberg discussed how older people in Sweden age differently depending on the technological nature of the areas in which they live. Using data of qualitative interviews in a city and a rural community he argues that in dynamic areas where there are many early adopters of new technology or services older people can be included, but in stagnating areas where the infrastructure tends to be eroded they are excluded. He also discusses two moral questions:

The first moral question is whether the oldest old should have the right to be outside, to keep their habits and routines, and not have to learn new practices. And if so, how should the individual’s independence be upheld? The second moral question is how the oldest old who want, but are unable to use, new technology, can be supported. I would argue that an individual who has lived a long life and gone through all the phases of the life course but the very last, has a special right to have access to technology that is crucial for her participation, independence and mobility in society. Obviously ICTs and how that conglomerate of agencies and applications will develop are of critical importance.

He concluded:

Many that debate the problems of the coming ageing society tone down the ways in which old people are excluded from new technology in the belief that the exclusion is a consequence of the generation to which they belong. The next generation of old people, one supposes, will see things differently. In one regard, this is right. Many more in the coming generations will use ICTs in the form we know it today. However, the digital divide will then run through other parts of the technology landscape. Other systems will be spreading, from which old people at that time will be estranged.[5] The ageing turn, which is inscribed in the biological and social logic of ageing and in the understanding of that life will soon be over, will also be a reality for the coming oldest old. The Janus face of technology is that it takes and it gives. It creates the new and destroys and undermines the old. It redistributes between generations. It can enforce the antagonism between young and old. It can be a part of the discrimination against old people. It can bridge age differences and abolish the consequences of age. One face of the God Janus looks in the direction of the future. His other face looks back, into the past.

Chisnell and Redish presented in chapter 6 ‘Modelling Older Adults for Website Design’ factors that are facilitating access to and use of websites. Based on their own empirical research in the USA they also pleaded for the adoption of a specific perspective that would take into account older adults when designing websites:

Just thinking about old age as a collection of disabilities is old business. The new world of designing for older adults is about creating websites and other technology that are useful and desirable as well as accessible to the broadest range of users. Older adults are a large and growing market, increasingly online, increasingly using social media, and with money to spend. You can design with older adults in mind and still meet the needs of younger people – in fact, helping older adults makes products better for younger people, too.

We endedthe second part of the volume with chapter 7 ‘The Ticket Machine Challenge: Social Inclusion by Barrier-free Ticket Vending Machines’. The results of their own empirical research in Austria and comparable studies in other countries helped Schreder, Siebenhandl, Mayr and Smuc to understand the importance of self-efficacy for barrier free information for older people:

When developing the new layout, it will be important to ensure that people who are nervous of the ticket machines or are characterised by low technological self-efficacy are given the feeling that they can master the task easily and without the help of others. As initial steps, the choice of options could be better structured and a clearer visual demarcation introduced between higher level menu elements. Another relative easy and intuitive step is to avoid computer terminology and to use everyday language instead (e.g., yes/no instead of ok/cancel).

In the third and final part of Generational Use of New Mediawe contrasted the ways younger and older people use new media by presenting empirical research from Finland and the Netherlands.

Lugano and Peltonen presented in chapter 8 ‘Building Intergenerational Bridges between Digital Natives and Digital Immigrants:Attitudes, Motivations and Appreciation for Old and New Media’ the results of an empirical research they conducted in one of the Finnish Communication Camps, a highly immersive informal learning experience, organised once a year when campers, of all ages, come together.

As expected, both digital natives and digital immigrants in Finland have convenient access to information and communication networks. However, service costs have a relatively different impact for the two generations: being economically dependent from their parents, digital natives prefer SMS to phone calls because the former is less expensive. Despite this difference, digital natives and immigrants agree that phone calls and SMS satisfy their everyday communication needs; as far as the internet is concerned, IM is the digital natives’ favourite choice, while email is the most popular application among digital immigrants. (…) In conclusion, Communication Camps are complementary to traditional learning settings because they enable the creation of intergenerational bridges. Through dialogue, the differences in perceiving and experiencing communication media will naturally blend and promote digital melting pot (…).

In chapter 9 ‘Age and Internet Skills: Rethinking the Obvious’Van Deursen challenged the general assumption concerning internet skills that younger generations are frequent, confident, and unproblematic internet users that can easily keep up with advances in communication technologiesand that the older generations are considered problematic and lacking confidence as internet users. Based on the results of Dutch performance tests related to four types of internet skills (operational, formal, information and strategic skills), he concluded:

Higher age does indeed contribute negatively to the level of the more basic medium-related operational and formal internet skills. The result is that seniors are seriously limited in their basic internet use. They have problems when saving files or when using search engines (e.g., entering keywords in the address bar or typing keywords attached to each other). Furthermore, while websites may seem to be easy to navigate to their designers, older users may find them disorientating and confusing. Although young people perform far better as regards these medium-related internet skills, they still show a strikingly low level of information and strategic internet skills (people of all ageshave trouble with the formulation of suitable or specific search queries, with selecting relevant search results, or with the evaluation of information). In fact, as age increases, the content-related internet skills actually improve. Unfortunately, increasing age also leads to considerable problems with the operational and formal internet skills that strongly influence the performance on the information and strategic internet skills.

Van Deursen argued that the older users’ experience operational and formal internet skill problems could be explained by their use of television, a medium with which they grew up[6]:

If they have no or only little experience with computers and the internet, they might compare the use of these media with watching a television screen. On a television screen, all information is visible in a ‘box’ that they observe. The use of computers and the internet is fundamentally different: what is seen on the screen can be moved by scroll bars, and only reveals a miniscule part of the whole information presence. If you are so used to watching television, why would you think of moving a window unless someone showed you? Of the operational and formal skills that seniors experience, many can be explained simply by the fact that they have not formally been taught to take certain steps (why move your mouse to appearing menu items, how can you save something from a screen?).

Finally, chapter 10‘Getting Access to Website Health Information: Does Age Really Matter?’ was based on the results of an eye-tracking study focused on the similarities and differences in navigation patterns between younger and older users and conducted in the Netherlands.Loos and Mante-Meijer concluded that age does matter only to a certain degree:

On the one hand our eye-tracking study confirms the conclusions from the previous studies noted earlier: older people tend to take more time looking at the content of the website page. This was true for the search tasks on both websites. It appeared that older people, compared to younger people, looked longer at the navigation area and at the ANBO home page they directed their focus more often at the wrong area. They were also slightly less successful than their younger counterparts.On the other hand, these generational differences became smaller when the older user was more experienced i.e. used the internet for a longer period.

Towards Media Literate Younger and Older Generations

The different chapters of this volume present an overview of the varied population of the multimedia landscape. New media present not only advantages of inclusion but also dangers of exclusion for the everyday life of both younger and older generations.

After having looked back at each chapter specifically, we will finally draw some general conclusions. What can we learn from the studies presented in Generational Use of New Media?

Let us first present and discuss the differences in the ways the younger and older generations use new media:

● Despite all the labels for younger people portraying them as experienced users of new media (see Table I.2 in the introduction), there is no empirical evidence that all younger people are able to use these media without any problem in their everyday life. The results of the studies in chapter 4 by Herold and chapter 9 by Van Deursen show clearly that it is a myth that younger people are all well-equipped to deal with new media.