Can we “nudge” older people online? Or might we need to compel?

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Seven and a half million people in the UK, the majority being older or disabled, have never been online. Yet despite the common perception that this is an issue that will go away, progress on getting older people online is slow. The latest Office of National Statistics report on internet use highlighted that progress in getting the over 65s online is much slower than for under 65s.

We know a lot about why individuals don’t go online. The barriers can be categorised within three groups: access issues, skills issues and behavioural choice. Yet whilst significant work has been undertaken to understand access and skills issues, there has been little focus on tackling the behavioural barriers to getting individuals online.

ILC-UK’s new report, published today, “Nudge or Compel: Can behavioural economics tackle the digital exclusion of older people?”[1] seeks to rectify this. The report reveals that there is growing evidence that behaviour and attitudes play just as great, if not a greater role than access and skills in getting people online.

In “Nudge or Compel”, we explore whether internet users show different behavioural traits to non-users. The findings are striking. Our analysis of the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing found that older internet users were more likely to feel in control of their life, and less likely to be isolated or lonely.

Our report explores how we can use behavioural economics to “nudge” older people online. We know that “status quo bias” can be a barrier to getting online. Older people may be comfortable with existing ways of receiving services and a jump to online could be daunting. To tackle this, we argue that service providers should offer the opportunity for people to ‘go back to paper’ if they are unsatisfied with their digital experience.

Behavioural economists tell us that people tend to over-value the present and under-value the future. This suggests that non-users of the internet might be unwilling to make initial investments involved in getting online. Simple solutions might be for service providers attract new customers by finding ways of discounted installation and connection deals, and initial periods of free internet access. Once online, older people are likely to stay online. Moreover, because of the tendency to discount the future, customers are likely to be more willing to agree to longer-term contracts in exchange for discounted or free initial access.

If older people have experience of performing certain tasks offline, they may assume that these remain the most effective way for them. Yet again, service providers can overcome this barrier by better promoting online services as quicker, faster and delivering a better quality of service than offline alternatives.

We know that people are influenced by the behaviour of others. Given that many peers older people’s peers are offline, it is perfectly understandable that older people don’t consider using the internet a social norm. Companies advertising technology and opportunities to learn technology must do so using imagery of both older and younger people. And older people who are online should be encouraged to talk through their experiences with their peers.

“Nudge or Compel” identifies some powerful examples of possible nudges we could use to help get older people online. But will a nudge will be adequate? Particularly as the Government makes more services exclusively “digital by default”.

Martha Lane Fox has argued that Government should look towards compulsion to get people online. She said “By switching services, like what we have done with analogue TV, there is a real opportunity to carry people on [to the internet],… I think that shutting down services would be the best way of carrying through the most amount of people, as long as it is carried through with training” [2].

Given recent and continuing cuts to adult learning, nudging people online might become the only alternative to compulsion.


David Sinclair

[1] ‘Nudge or Compel: Can behavioural economics tackle the digital exclusion of older people?’ is available to download now.
[2] News story: Government services should be online-only to up web use

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