Kerstin Wolgers made it through 82 years on this Earth without ever once checking an email, watching a YouTube clip or sending a tweet. But last week, as part of a crash course that introduced her to the Internet for the first time, the former Swedish actress did all three – plus Googled, Instagrammed, Wikipedia-ed, shopped, video-gamed ... even online-dated, eventually.
“Lots going on here,” she says of Tinder. “It’s really exciting, if you ask me.”
Exciting – but also confusing, “difficult” and “mad.” Over a period of only five days – during which she wore a heart monitor to track her anxiety (!) and a camera to beam her adventures online – Wolger learned a lifetime’s worth of Internet skills, from how to conduct a Google search and pay a bill online to where to watch cat videos and “Gangnam Style.”
At the conclusion of her grand experiment, Wolgers conducted an interview on Reddit that briefly reached the site’s front page. She did not know whether she’ll keep on using Tinder, she said, but she planned to look into getting a broadband connection – she wanted to watch ABBA videos, look up more art, read some poetry.
“I actually think that the world is better with access to Internet,” she wrote on Reddit, when asked whether she thought the Internet was a bad thing. “It opens up so many possibilities!”
And not just to play Battlefield or meet (much younger!) men – but to access social services and participate in larger social discussions.
Wolgers, as you may have guessed by this point, didn’t dive into the Internet for the lolz alone. Her grand experiment was part of a Swedish advocacy campaign, organized by the public relations firm MyNewsDesk, that aimed to draw attention to the “digital divide” – the often invisible gulf between people who use the Internet and those who still do not, particularly among seniors. In Sweden, campaigners claim, as many as one in 10 people don’t have access to the Web.
That’s actually slightly better than the situation in the United States, where 13 percent of adults say they don’t use the Internet. If you drill it down to just seniors, that number jumps dramatically – to 41 percent, or about 16 million people.
Research from Pew suggests that many of these people have health issues or financial constraints that prevent them from logging on. But there’s a cultural gap at play here, too: The vast majority of seniors who aren’t online think they’re either not missing anything, or – even if they are – that the new technology is just too difficult to learn. That maybe, at a certain age, it’s just not worth it.
“I had thought about learning more, or anything, about the Internet,” Wolgers told Redditors during her AMA, summing up the attitude of roughly half of all offline Americans. “But frankly I felt lost before this week began.”
Increasingly, of course, gerontology research shows the exact opposite to be true: Seniors are actually more lost without the Internet than with it. Seniors who log on tend to be far more educated about their health; they’re far less isolated and more independent. One study out of the University of Michigan suggested that Internet use could cut depression risk among seniors by more than 30 percent – a huge finding, given the wide-ranging effects that depression and isolation have on senior’s health.
“These skills and devices enable communication, entertainment, health management, etc., in a demographic where face-to-face social networks are shrinking as friends pass away and children and grandchildren are more geographically diverse,” said Kate Magsamen-Conrad, a professor at Bowling Green State, who runs a computer literacy program for seniors. That literacy “allows people to connect on multiple levels, (and) connecting in relationships fosters positive well-being.”
Testimonies like Magsamen-Conrad’s have inspired a number of new pushes around senior Internet use in recent years: A Toronto program called Cyber-Seniors, in which teens taught computer skills in a retirement community, became a well-reviewed documentary last spring; in November, AARP and the Internet-based advocacy group DoSomething.org recruited more than 81,000 young people – including YouTube stars iJustine and Kevin Droniak – to teach older people in their lives how to use the Internet.
The resulting tweets, Instagrams and YouTube clips tend toward the frivolous, rather like Wolgers’ adventures online: selfies of ugly sweaters, Snapchat stories, “throwback playlists.” I’m immediately reminded of my own grandmother’s undying aversion to the Web: “What do you do with all that ... stuff?” she recently asked me, with a face like prunes, not long after I explained (for the 100th time!) why the newspaper was also “on the computer.”
It’s not that bad a question, honestly: As some Redditors delighted in reminding Wolgers, there’s a whole lot of junk out there. But the charming naivete with which she answers their cynical questions – “What’s the worst thing you’ve seen online?” “Do you think the world would be better without Internet?” – is a good reminder of just how invaluable the Internet is, to seniors and to all of us.
“Good job, mom!” Her son tweeted to her last week.
“Thanks son!” Wolgers tweeted back. “I’m continuing my education here!”