How to Teach Older People Online Infolit

People often ask me what we can do about older people and online information literacy. Old people are not necessarily more confused than young people, but for various reasons they are positioned to do much more harm when they get things wrong. They also tend to be embedded in more ideological tribes whereas as young people form tribes around other interests.

My answer is this: teach the young people how to fact-check and then have them teach their parents. Young folks are already embarrassed about their parents’ cluelessness on the web, and my experience with young folks (in a middle class American context at least) is they have no trouble speaking up when your actions as a parent are embarrassing. So give young people the skills, and show them how to teach others.

A short example: I’m not a personal fan of the post-consumer recycling approach we’ve adopted to packaging in the U.S. But in the 1980s and 1990s we decided to teach a nation to recycle their trash. Did we go out and have massive education initiatives for adults on the recycling process and the importance of it? Nope. We educated the kids so that every parent who threw a yogurt cup into the wrong container had to endure the “why do you hate baby seals” stare of their fifth grader.  And some folks got resentful, but for most it was easier just to learn how to do it.

There are many other examples. My Dad quit smoking partially because his recently educated grade schoolers guilted him into it. Children of the 1970s were often the ones teaching their parents to not throw trash out the car window. College students of the 1990s were often the ones showing their parents how to work the new computer, or get on the web.

People — of all ages — are already there in terms of desiring to curb misinformation’s spread, but they need to be able to teach the skills to their parents in a systemic way. I talked to a person in D.C. a month ago whose mother always shares those fake “missing kid” memes on Facebook. And she always would comment “Mom, it’s fake” (or old or whatever). But it never occurred to her that she could show her Mom how to check it herself. When we get these checks down to easily demonstrable 10 second checks, that changes.

Teach the children and give them the skills and tools to teach their parents, stopping them from sliding into conspiracy subcultures and alternate realities. Teach the interns to teach their Senators and policy makers how to check this stuff. The college students to navigate health information for their aunt or uncle. Graduate wave after wave of people who know how to navigate the web and are committed to helping other to do better with it too.  That’s how you get this done.


4 thoughts on “How to Teach Older People Online Infolit

  1. Hi Mike,
    I am retired (and an old person 🙂 and I volunteer at my local library half a day a week as an IT Buddy and at a monthly Tablets and Tea session. Most of the people I see are old people and I am learning much about them and how they are affected by government policy especially the role of digital in its implementation. The older people I see are a pretty diverse bunch in terms of class, wealth, education and previous experience. Since I worked in HE teaching Information Systems up to 5 years ago, I encountered young people during the period of growing Internet adoption. Many were enthusiastic early adopters but could be pretty clueless in their assumptions and consideration of the wider implications of adoption of digital.
    The work you do and share on fact-checking is amazing and I thank you for that. I do think the teach the young and let them teach the old is an incomplete solution.
    I thought the whole Digital Natives trope had been well and truly debunked. I see many older people who have a critical approach to technology that was sadly lacking in many students I taught who would go on to create (or inflict) technology/ systems on others in their graduate employment.
    We will get a bunch of people in January whose children/grandchildren have bought them a tablet (often cheap and completely locked into Google in the manual) so the old folk can view the pictures of grandchildren and do for themselves what they have been pestering the gift-givers to do for themselves. The young are not always effective educators of the old or even themselves.
    As austerity bites deeper in public services, more and more support services go online with telephone and face to face support being reduced or eliminated. Many, particularly on those on benefits, feel forced to go online. The young are pressed into supporting older relatives by proxy or surrogate use and Selwyn et al’s report has a set of recommendations that you may find interesting.
    In UK, there has been a long term trend to spend the majority of the Adult Education budget on 18-21 year olds. A big difference in people I see is between those who learned keyboard skills as part of their jobs and those who didn’t, some of whom conceal literacy problems. So people without keyboard skills find tablets and touch screens more attractive. Unfortunately, app universes like Apple and Android can be more committed to usability of function rather than manageability of privacy and data via settings.
    Anyway, I have gone on too long. I’ll share with you a story of a great man, obviously intelligent and with a rich experience of life who came to see me several times while he worked out what he wanted to do online. He learned keyboard skills via Library Access to an online learning package. He learned to search, to use Wikipedia and Google maps and No thanks – he didn’t want an email address and wouldn’t be buying a computer or smartphone. He’d come to the library when he needed to use a computer. He was using the web as it was first intended – without being constantly tracked 🙂
    Selwyn, N., Johnson, N., Nemorin, S., & Knight, E. (2016). Going online on behalf of others others. Retrieved from

  2. Frances — as noted in the opening paragraph (and many many other places on this blog) older people are not worse at this than others. Depending on what measure you use they are a little bit better or a little bit worse but overall all people suck at this so much it’s insignificant.

    The question from a public policy perspective is how you *reach* older people, because older people *are* the primary spreaders of political and health misinformation by an order of magnitude. Most older people who spread such information are not involved in ongoing education and reaching them is quite hard. So you need a mechanism and this is it. We have limited time and there is no adult infrastructure in place. The proposal here is not that young people are awesome at this right now — the proposal is they are in a position to learn to be better and show others in a way that most 50 year olds are not.

    I’m an old folk too who is better at this than most and finds the assumptions about old folks and technology to be annoying. But that’s not what this post is about — it’s not about me or you or any of that.It’s about a deployment problem around getting education to people who don’t know they need it.

  3. I said that I thought it was an incomplete solution. My own view is that there is a wider problem than misinformation and one signal of that is that turning a blind eye to the implications of the extensive socio-technical networks that we use in education. It is not just about the content of the information, it’s also about automatically collected (personal) data as we consume content, do our jobs, play, etc – Shoshana Zuboff has been telling us about informating since 1988 at least

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