Recently, an article in Computer Link, a monthly Rochester technology publication, pointed out a phenomenon that most of us have probably taken for granted: Many Baby Boomers feel out of place on the internet. The article states that Baby Boomers make up over a quarter of all internet users, but they only use the internet for approximately five hours a week. Only 14 percent felt that ads and other internet content targeted their demographic. Furthermore, only 9.9 percent of Baby Boomers felt that social networking sites targeted them. According to the 2008 American Census projections, this underrepresented generation (those aged 55 to 69) could be roughly 44,467 out of the 177,868 people currently on the internet.
While the idea that older Americans may not be well-acquainted with new technology may not be difficult to fathom, this article struck too much of a nerve with me to let it pass. There is more to using the internet (or any form of technology) than age. I believe that our Baby Boomers aren’t being left out physically. They may just not feel confident enough in their technical skill to continue to venture until they find what they are looking for.
The internet isn’t a supermarket. At any physical store, if you don’t see what you like on the shelf or in the entire store on a regular basis, then you can legitimately claim that the supplier isn’t meeting your needs or desires. The internet requires more effort and a continuous search. This being so, the attitude that they aren’t allowed to extensively use the internet would definitely stunt their desire to learn or venture out.
I asked my Game Design professor, Keith Whittington, about his experience with his internet use. He identifies himself as a Baby Boomer who uses the internet extensively (about 10 hours a week). He has a Facebook account, which he enjoys because it, contrary to what the study implies, helps him find and connect with people he knew years ago. Having a Facebook account myself, I agree when he concludes that the only real requirement for using it or the internet is that “you have to know how to use a computer.”
But in all fairness, my professor only uses his page occasionally, and a large portion of the Facebook crowd does appear to be younger folks, who most likely don’t want their parents, older relatives or teachers in the same networks as them. Additionally, he admits that his internet experience is comprised mainly of email, MyCourses and Facebook because he is required through his status as a professor. He doesn’t see sites such as Facebook as solely targeting the young crowd, but he feels that there may be something missing in his experience.
But how do we address the lack of content targeting this underrepresented generation? Perhaps, it should be done in the same way we get elementary school children to remember their lessons: by giving them the internet in a form they’re comfortable. While we can’t force them to use or like the same things we do, we can provide alternative forms of the things that serve the same purpose, give them an internet that fits their needs. In this case, one may be interested in http://mytimehero.com, a social networking site specifically for older, more mature individuals.
In the end, a person isn’t automatically entitled to be a part of the “computer literate” or “internet group” just because of his age. Skill should be the main deciding factor in whether one is allowed to use the internet. Instead, we as a culture are treating technology as a commodity to be marketed to a narrow target group. The Baby Boomers could obviously increase revenue for online business, but the underlying requirement of feeling confident and welcome online must be met for them first. I charge that as future entrepreneurs and CEOs, we keep this fact in mind.
The opinions expressed in the Views section are solely those of the author.