As the online perils of privacy make themselves known, empowering the elderly with digital literacy has become more important
When Shreya Bajaj, co-founder of Easy Hai, received overwhelming responses from her trainees to learn more about Signal and Telegram, it struck a chord. Maybe it is not just the younger users worried about online privacy, but the elders as well, she thought.
Shreya’s Easy Hai is a Bengaluru-based organisation that trains people in the use of simple technology through Zoom video calls, to enhance digital literacy. “There was so much confusion around whether one should leave WhatsApp, so it was time we helped our trainees learn about the alternatives,” Shreya says. The company trains both younger business folk and the elderly on safe use of digital tools.
A numbers game
- 58% of the adult world population owns a smartphone, making it more commonly owned than radios, TVs and even a toothbrush, according to a survey titled 6th Global Smartphone User Survey conducted by Mobile Ecosystem Forum
- The highest penetration rate among smartphone users in India in 2019 was in the age group of 16 and 24 at 37%, according to Mobile Ecosystem Forum. Although the penetration rate fell to nearly 10% users aged above 45 years, open operating systems and low data rates helped fuel digital adoption
- More than half the respondents above the age of 60 said they require computer training for bettering social interaction, providing gainful employment and inculcating financial inclusion, according to a survey titled Changing Needs & Rights of Older People in India conducted by AgeWell Foundation
Easy Hai’s classes cater to two sets of people. Predominantly above the age of 50, the first set comprise those who have been taking lessons for the past three months and are curious about how WhatsApp’s policy may impact them. They have also been learning about technology independently, recognise the prevalence of fake news and want to make a conscious effort to protect their online identity.
The second set relies on word of mouth; they have been hearing from friends and family via WhatsApp forwards about how Facebook is putting them at risk and sought Shreya’s help to understand the issue. “All of them are part of so many online groups — yoga class, bhajan class, art class, that the privacy conversation became inevitable,” says Shreya.
Thus began a quest to clear the clutter. Easy Hai conducted a class to familiarise users with Signal. Some users had already downloaded the app prior to the class, Shreya noted. The class spoke about the various features of Signal, how different the interface is from WhatsApp and how rookies can get started. It also addressed the major change users must be prepared for — using an entirely new platform altogether.
Make informed switches
The transition was not easy. Users made note of the several changes they have to undergo, which they took weeks to grasp. For example, iOS users complained about the inability to back up chats between multiple platforms. “This itself is a sign that we need not be in a hurry to switch to other apps. We need to give ourselves enough time to fully comprehend the changes and then make a decision,” Shreya told her students.
Himanshu Rath, founder and chairman of AgeWell Foundation
There also involves a matter of choice, Shreya points out. We may hear from friends and family about the downsides of WhatsApp, but the choice to move out should ultimately be in the hands of the user, no matter the age. “Our job is to only put forth the pros and cons of what is happening, it should be up to them to make an informed choice,” she notes.
A July 2017 survey titled ‘Changing Needs & Rights of Older People in India: A Review’ conducted by non-governmental organisation AgeWell Foundation, Delhi, revealed that nearly 94% elderly respondents were digitally illiterate. This percentage was much higher in women than in men above the age of 70. Organisations such as Easy Hai and AgeWell Foundation help push healthy conversation about the digital world among those who did not grow up with computers and mobile phones.
“The same set of people who have been nonchalant about privacy and digital rights in the past, are now ready to discuss the implications of the recent development. This helps break the barrier of age and promote digital education,” said Apar Gupta, executive director, Internet Freedom Foundation, Delhi, a digital liberties organisation.
Apar Gupta, executive director, Internet Freedom Foundation, Delhi
This dialogue is taking place organically, Apar added. The prevalence of day-long chats on multiple WhatsApp groups has made people consider alternative messaging apps such as Signal. This includes older people, especially those who utilise WhatsApp groups to keep in touch with loved ones.
Delhi-based retired engineer Amit Karmakar (67) is one such example. Amit signed up for lessons with AgeWell Foundation about a year ago, aiming to learn about computer and smartphone usage. When his friends started discussing the WhatsApp new policy few weeks ago, Amit decided to read up on the issue.
“It is scary how much personal information is out in the open. If apps are not user-friendly, it is time to switch to safer ones,” he shares, stating that he is comfortable using WhatsApp, and happy to adapt to other platforms. He adds that he is also ready to tutor his peers.
Turn of the century?
There are still people who may be averse to change. Himanshu Rath, founder and chairman of AgeWell Foundation, said it is important to note that some people have only recently held a smartphone in their hands. These users may also be open to the idea of simply reverting to the old school method of SMS. “Sure, photos can’t be sent via the SMS, but it is not the end of the world,” he notes.
Additionally, the penetration of the Internet and smartphone is limited to urban and Tier 1 cities, often leaving people in the rural areas and Tier 2 and 3 towns to fend for themselves. Awareness about digital rights and online privacy will only increase henceforth. With social media becoming increasingly influential and pushing important dialogue, age does not matter, as long as users have access to guidance.