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April 20, 2009

Senior Citizens Becoming More Net-Savvy

Although tech-savvy young people were largely responsible for the explosive growth of the Internet during its early stages, senior citizens 70 and older now represent the fastest growing segment of Web users, experts said Monday.

"Older adults are the fastest growing demographic on the Internet," said Professor Vicki Hanson of Scotland's University of Dundee on Monday during a global World Wide Web conference in Madrid, Spain.

In 2005, just 26 percent of 70-75 year-olds in the U.S. surfed the Web.  As of last year that number had grown to 45 percent, Hanson said, citing data from the Pew Internet & American Life Project. 

The percentage of those 76 and older that use the Internet rose from 17 to 27 percent during that time.  

Britain has also seen a dramatic increase in the number of senior citizens surfing the Web, according to Andrew Arch of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), the Web's primary international standards organization.

"They are basically doing the same things as everyone else. Using the Web for communication, then quickly moving to other activities like information seeking, online banking, shopping," Arch told Reuters.

According to the Pew study, e-mail is the most popular online activity for Internet users age 64 and older.  However, older users are less likely than their younger counterparts to conduct online shopping and banking, and are far less likely to visit social networking sites such as MySpace and Facebook, the study found.

"They are not on Twitter," said Hanson.

Given the expected sharp increase in the percentage of the U.S. population aged 60 and older, which is projected to reach 20 percent by 2050, experts predict the numbers of older Web surfers will continue to rise in the years ahead.

Additionally, many nations are now increasing the retirement age, which is expected to further fuel Internet use among older adults who will need to be Web proficient to work.

However, the physical challenges that accompany old age still act as a barrier for Internet use.  For instance, poor vision can make reading text more difficult, while arthritis can make using a mouse more challenging.

Some Web sites are making it easier for senior citizens to surf the net by utilizing larger fonts, higher contrast and extra spaces at the end of sentences, said Arch, works to facilitate Web accessibility for older and disabled Internet users.

"The typical web developer does not really understand that the world is ageing the way it is," he said.

The changes he recommends would make it easier for people of all ages to surf the Web, he said.

"It is like footpaths. They were initially set up for the disabled but then everyone found them very useful."

The number of people using the Internet has now surpassed one billion for the first time, according to comScore figures that count only unique users aged 15 and older.  The figures exclude those who access the Web from their mobile phones or from Internet cafes.

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