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Marston, H.R1,2, Morgan, D.J2,1, Wilson-Menzfeld, G3, & Gates, J3

1Health and Wellbeing Strategic Research Area, Faculty of Wellbeing, Education, Languages, The Open University, Milton Keynes, Buckinghamshire, UK, MK7 6AA. Hannah.Marston@open.ac.uk / https://orcid.org/0000-0002-8018-4166

2Centre for Innovative Ageing, Swansea University, Singleton Park, West Glamorgan, SA2 8PP, UK.

d.j.morgan@swansea.ac.uk / https://orcid.org/0000-0002-3107-3945

3Nursing, Midwifery & Health, Northumbria University, Newcastle, UK gemma.wilson-menzfeld@nortumbria.ac.uk / https://orcid.org/0000-0001-7362-7048/  J.r.gates@northumbria.ac.uk / https://orcid.org/0000-0002-8934-025X

The reliance on technology during the COVID-19 pandemic has grown considerably. Technology is now the main form of communication for many people using social applications such as Zoom, Twitter, FaceTime, and WhatsApp messaging. However, not everyone was able to adapt their mode of social interaction from being offline to online, and as a result the pandemic has brought the “digital divide” to the forefront. In turn this has led to the widening of the divide between those people who are able to access and use online support tools, media, and communication platforms and those excluded from this support.

Digital exclusion across all age groups (young and old) is nothing new (Gallistl, et al., 2020; Seifert, et al., 2020; Taipale, 2019; Hargittai & Dobransky, 2017; Friemel, 2016; Duggan & Page, 2015; Selwyn, 2012; DiMaggio & Hargittai, 2011; Eszter & Hinnant, 2008; Prensky, 2001) although the conversation around this has considerably grown as a result of COVID-19.

Despite there in the growing use of technology over recent years, there are still disparities in access and skills/usage (Freeman, et al., 2020; Fernández-Ardèvol, 2019; Fernández-Ardèvol, et al., 2019; Marston, et al., 2019; Ivan & Hebblethwait, 2016; Villanti et al., 2016; Ofcom, 2018; Smith & Page, 2016; Czaja, et al., 2013; North, Snyder, Bulfin, 2008; Tondeur, Sinnaeve, van Braak, 2010; Mitzner, et al., 2010; Wilson, Gates, Vijaykumar & Morgan, 2020). , COVID-19 has also highlighted the relationship between digital exclusion and poverty (McKinney, 2020).The reliance on technology will certainly remain in the short-term with digital exclusion continuing to be problematic while COVID-19 restrictions, working from home and the changing technological culture(s) remain in place relating to online support services.

Additionally, and more importantly, there are longer-term issues relating specifically to digital exclusion and poverty. There is now an urgency to develop digital confidence to enable individuals to independently access online content and services (delivered by councils and governments). However, even among those with some digital skills, difficulties remain. This was illustrated in a recent study completed by some members of the research team (Wilson, Gates, Vijaykumar & Morgan, 2020) who highlighted the complexity of digital exclusion. In this study,  even older adults who owned smart devices and regularly used social media experienced barriers which negatively influenced technology use. Specifically, several biopsychosocial barriers impacted use of technology; physical functioning (dexterity & visual issues) which is also supported by the work of (Marston, 2013) via video game play, self-efficacy, fear, culture and communication, and lack of social capital. It is essential to address the barriers to technology use to reduce this digital divide and increase inclusivity of technology and associated devices and platforms. The focus of support should not only be on those that are classed as being ‘digitally excluded’ but also those who do not feel confident using technology and therefore feel reliant on others to maintain this use.

One solution to address this is through inclusive design, incorporating co-design and production approaches of digital devices and social applications with older people. Smartphones and tablets provide an affordable, accessible entry route to the digital world. However, the interfaces are not user intuitive and can be off putting for individuals who lack basic digital skills. Although there are apps which simplify smartphone interfaces (e.g., Grand Launcher), these have limited functionality: e.g., SOS button, SMS text, and flashlight, and are not representative of the needs of older people. Furthermore, White, et al., (2020) propose a unified model language diagram (UML) which illustrates the interaction between an older person and their point of contact(s), within the concept of a ‘digital address book’. there is an urgent need to co-develop an application that has the functionality to reflect the needs of older adults and to build digital confidence.

The work conducted in conjunction with the outputs from the ATAT project are important because older people have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19. In part this is due to a lack of digital skills, which has widened inequalities between those who have access and those who do not. Data from ONS show that in the UK 4.3 million people in the UK have no digital skills and 6.4 million only have limited digital skills (ONS, 2019). Key barriers to engagement with digital technologies include cost, lack of support, technology being perceived as complicated or it’s not for ‘people like me’ (Good Things Foundation, 2018).

Furthermore, with no offline alternative for information and services, during the pandemic, those who were required to self-isolate and who had limited, or no digital skills faced food insecurity, lacked social connection, and faced increased risk of loneliness and social isolation. This study  has potential to address these shortfalls- by simplifying digital access on existing smartphones or tablets.

The aims and objectives of the ATAT study are:

  • To understand from a new user perspective what basic adjustments need to be made to existing, affordable technology to support digital confidence and literacy among people aged 50+
  • To identify what technological innovations and prototype applications enable new users to confidently access digital platforms

This work aligns with several key policy areas including the English and Welsh Loneliness Strategies (A Connected Society & Connected Communities) and the Welsh Government Prosperity for All, The Future Generations Act Wales and the UK Digital Strategy.

Without this work, older people and other digitally excluded groups will fall further behind. This is a particular concern in relation to digital health services, where those most in need of health and care service (older people, people with disabilities  and chronic conditions, people living in disadvantaged circumstances) are those least likely to have digital skills or be able to use digital health services. Further disadvantaging them and widening existing health inequalities.

The ATAT project received seed corn funding from CHERISH-DE (Swansea University) and additional funding from the Health and Wellbeing Strategic Research Area (Open University). Funding for this project facilitated the multi-and-inter disciplinary research team.

ATAT project outputs:

From the ATAT project, we have been able to co-create and co-design various outputs which are accessible to a myriad of audiences.

  • 1 Podcasts including narratives from all research members and older adults
  • 1 book chapter (forthcoming Routledge, 2023)
  • 2 pieces of written evidence (Marston, et al.,2021a; 2020) and a citation in the House of Lords Covid-19 Committee, (2021, p. 26)
  • 2 blog pieces published via Ageing Issues (Marston, et al., 2021b/c)
  • Icon booklet (English and Welsh)
    • Available to download via the project webpage

Forming part of this blog the ATAT research team want to announce the release of a podcast which are available via the project webpage and will be released on Twitter via @lonelyDeborah.

This podcast details the experiences of all members of the research team and highlight the experiences of digital technologies by the older participants.

The podcast is available on the following platforms:

We would like to thank Digital Communities in Wales and Digital VOICE Newcastle for their positive engagement and assistance and overall, the participants who took part in the online workshops, provided feedback and ideas relating to the outputs. Without the voices of the older participants the outputs from this project would not have been possible.


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White, P.J., Marston, H.R., Shore, L., and Turner, R. (2020). Learning from COVID-19: Design, Age-friendly Technology, Hacking and Mental Models [version 1; peer review: 1 approved]. Emerald Open Res, 2:21 https://doi.org/10.35241/emeraldopenres.13599.1.

Wilson, G., Gates, J., Vijaykumar, S., & Morgan, D.J. (2021). Understanding older adults’ use of social technology and the factors influencing use. Ageing and Society. doi:10.1017/S0144686X21000490.