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Poor Health Contributing to Digital Divide Among Older Singaporeans

Study finds that a vulnerable group of older Singaporeans have their internet use affected by health-related issues, pinpointing the need for improved public efforts at digital inclusion.

As more everyday activities are shifting online, the ability to use the internet safely and confidently is becoming an essential skill. The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of digital connectivity to keep in touch with friends and family. While Singapore’s many ambitious digital inclusion initiatives, such as Digital Ambassadors, have done much to aim all citizens with digital literacy skills, a new study has found that there is a vulnerable group of older adults who may need extra attention from public efforts at digital inclusion.

The study, published in The Gerentologist by researchers from Duke-NUS Medical School, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, and the University of Massachusetts, found that one in 15 older Singaporeans (aged 60 or older), face additional difficulties in using the internet because of poor health (e.g. visual impairment or movement difficulties). Additionally, 57 percent of the approximately 4000 survey respondents who participated in the study did not use the internet because of other reasons.

“Our findings suggest that health-related difficulties are relevant in understanding the digital divide between the young and the old. Concurrent with optimising the health of older persons, policymakers should consider supporting research and development into assistive technology and design aimed at helping older internet users overcome health-related difficulty in internet use,” said Assistant Professor Rahul Malhotra, Head of Research of Duke-NUS’ Centre for Ageing Research and Education (CARE).

The study found that those who were male, had lower education level, and had limitations in day-to-day activities such as doing housework or using the telephone, were more likely to face challenges in using the internet due to health-related reasons. The researchers also found that that those of higher age, females, with lower education level, and residing in low-income housing were more likely to not use the internet for non-health-related reasons, such as lack of internet access.

“In this study, we were not able to identify the specific obstacles faced by those not using the internet for non-health-related reasons. But hurdles such as the lack of digital literacy and the cost of devices and internet service provision likely play a role,” said Assistant Professor Malhotra.

A particularly concerning finding of the study, relevant in the current time when safe distancing is a new norm for preventing the spread of COVID-19 infections, was that health-related difficulties in internet use created additional barriers to online communication between older adults and their family and friends, and poor social connections and support. Cumulatively, this resulted in a lower quality of life for older adults.

“Health-related difficulties in using the internet matter, because it means that teaching digital skills and offering cheap internet access to seniors may not fully address the digital divide. Online communication tools are thought to benefit seniors with physical limitations, since it does not require travel. Unfortunately for some seniors, health issues stand in the way of even their internet use. Providing social support to these older adults through non-digital means thus remains key, even as we work towards identifying and minimising health-related difficulties in internet use,” said Assistant Professor Shannon Ang, from Sociology, NTU Singapore.

“Singapore is addressing ageing as a prioritised national agenda by studying trends and implications and recommending solutions. This collaborative study on the ability of the elderly to use the internet shows that it is imperative to help older adults who rely on the internet to stay socially connected, which will aid in their ability to maintain a high overall quality of life as they age,” said Professor Patrick Casey, Senior Vice-Dean for Research at Duke-NUS.

In the future, the research team plans to gain a deeper understanding of the specific health problems that directly lead to difficulty in internet use among older adults. [APBN]