“We have to respect people’s right not to be a part of the digital environment”

29 November, 2022

CNSC researcher Andrea Rosales concludes the series on ‘The challenges of ageing’ with a seminar on digital ageism

The digitalization of our society increased during the COVID-19 pandemic due to the social distancing measures imposed. A large proportion of basic and communication services gained strength on digital platforms. “This situation, which may be beneficial and logical for most people, can lead to various collectives that do not use digital technologies being excluded, as has been the case for many older people,” explained Dr Andrea Rosales (a member of the Faculty of Information and Communication Sciences and a researcher in the CNSC – Communication Networks & Social Change group at the IN3) during her lecture on ‘Digital ageism on digital platforms’.

In her talk, which examined this type of discrimination associated with age, she also noted that “there will always be a part of the population that new technologies do not reach, and as a society we have to respect people’s right to not be a part of digital environments.” 

This was the final seminar in a series on ‘the challenges of ageing: an interdisciplinary look at old age‘, organized by the Faculty of Health Sciences of the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya (UOC), in which experts from various disciplines addressed the challenges of old age.


Discourses that reinforce stereotypes

According to Andrea Rosales, digital ageism is the “discrimination against older people based on how age is represented and experienced in relation to digital technologies“. This type of discrimination is based on the predominant values in society, and according to Rosales, it takes various forms, including “the discourses and forms of interaction found on digital platforms and in the  corporate culture that permeates the design of technologies and the biases of algorithms”. 

Among the characteristics of this ageism, Rosales highlighted some “very deep-rooted” discourses that contribute to reinforcing stereotypes against older people. First, she mentioned the discourse related to ‘digital natives’, according to which people who were born and raised after the advent of digital technologies – and subsequently social media – find using these technologies easier. 

“In reality, nobody is born knowing how to use all the technologies, as there are so many of them and they change over time, and you generally choose the ones you need at each point in time. People say that digital natives are experts because they write quickly on their mobile phones, but they may need help the first time they want to use an electronic certificate,” she pointed out. 

She also mentioned the discourse related to early and late adopters, i.e. the contrast between people who start using a new technology quickly with no external pressure to do so, compared to those who take longer and need someone to convince them. “This theory is based on the idea that some people are more sceptical at first, but end up accepting new technologies in the end. However, the fact is that there will always be some people who are not going to adopt certain technologies,” she argued.

“These two representations prevent us from seeing the wide variety of ways people interact with technologies, which is also the case among senior citizens,” she added.


The biases of technology and their creators

The technologies and the people who develop them also often contribute to reinforcing age stereotypes and digital ageism. In this regard, Rosales recalled a recent study by her research group in which they interviewed programmers working in various companies, who were mostly young and white. The study showed that age-related stereotypes are deeply rooted in these professionals’ culture. “The technologies of everyday life are not designed for older people. Each product is focused on a typical user, and older people are not the target users for technology, unless the technology is tools to compensate for the negative processes associated with ageing,” she noted. 

Furthermore, according to Rosales, these stereotypes “also end up having an impact on the design of artificial intelligence (AI) algorithms” that are increasingly present in the data society, and recalled the warning by the World Health Organization (WHO) in this regard: “If left unchecked, AI technologies may perpetuate existing ageism in society and undermine the quality of health and social care that older people receive.”

Relating to this, Rosales has announced a new project that will begin in early 2023, involving five pilot studies to raise awareness of how AI systems end up discriminating against older people. The study will analyse the algorithmic biases against this group in the fields of health, transportation, facial recognition, human resources systems and granting loans. 


Raising awareness in society and respecting rights

In view of this situation, the researcher also looked at various initiatives to counteract this digital ageism. First, she highlighted the importance of the movement against the digitalization of banking, which gathered almost 650,000 signatures on an online platform against the reduction in human involvement in banking services, which is primarily affecting senior citizens. “The most important thing is that it is the first activist movement that refers to digital ageism when talking about how older people are displaced from society and how their independence and financial autonomy are reduced,” she pointed out. 

She also mentioned the need for digital training to be available for those who want to learn, but highlighted the limits of this approach. “There will always be a flow of new technologies, and each person will have to decide if they want to adopt them or not. We have many obligations as citizens, but being on the internet is not one of them. The digitalization of society is very positive, but you cannot force the entire population to become digital,” she said. Furthermore, not everyone can be expected to sign up for courses on digital skills.

Finally, Rosales emphasized that digital discrimination is a problem that can affect anyone, as it is not just a question of age or digital skills. “There are some services today, such as buying a train or plane ticket, which are available almost exclusively online, and this discriminates not just against people without digital skills, but also against anyone who doesn’t have access to a mobile phone or the internet at a given point in time,” she concluded.



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