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The Aging Net

Each year more and more seniors are using the Internet. Web designers should take notice.
December 11, 2002

With this column, I pay tribute to my mother, who passed away last month, and to the many others of her generation who were early adopters of digital technologies.

Throughout the 1990s, the highest growth in Internet usage occurred on the extreme ends of the age scale among the young and the old. Seniornet, one of several nonprofit groups providing Internet and computer training and services for older Americans, found that 4 out of 10 seniors currently have access to a personal computer. Of those, 80 percent accessed the Internet in the past week. The highest growth currently occurs among those just entering the retirement age. Many of them (like my mother whose last job was providing administrative support to a software company) were introduced to computers at work and now use them in their everyday lives. In fact, my mother had her own PC before I did.

As the baby boomers retire, we are going to see an even more dramatic rise in the number of seniors online. Today, there are 35 million senior citizens in the United States. By 2020, when most baby boomers have reached retirement age, those numbers will soar to 54 million. How will the graying of the American population impact the Web’s future?

The Internet may help some seniors live autonomous lives by, for instance, facilitating outside contact for those who are homebound. For the more able-bodied, the Internet will open up new vistas for exploration. So far, few Web sites specifically address seniors, and those that do typically target a narrow (but essential) range of topics: retirement and social security, medical issues, death and grief, and religion. The aging baby boomers-who are expected to enjoy longer and healthier lives than previous generations-will demand a significantly broader range of activities. Today, seniors make up a significant portion of the online traffic to travel-related sites. As they remain sexually active later in life, they will seek safe-sex information from the Internet that they may be embarrassed to request from doctors or family members. A third of all current Seniornet subscribers play computer games (mostly bridge and checkers to be sure), but a growing number enjoy multiplayer game worlds-vast fantasy realms where they can play at being bards or innkeepers, or Navy SEALs. Some reports have even found that seniors buy more music online than teens do.

Designing digital content for America’s youth seems hot and sexy; getting predominantly young designers to develop content for seniors is like pulling teeth. In our media convergence class, my co-teacher, Chris Weaver, and I developed a project to get MIT students to interview seniors through Seniornet’s local training centers and then prototype sites based on what they learned. Many students, undoubtedly spooked by the idea of spending time reflecting on what life was like after 65, dropped the class rather than complete the assignment. Those who remained found the experience rewarding, developing a range of senior-oriented sites that might well work in the current marketplace, including music and travel services and even a mentor program that connects troubled teens with elders ready to provide advice.

The interests and life experiences of seniors are significantly underrepresented on television. Seniors watch on average 10 hours more week than any other demographic group, yet the Nielsen Ratings significantly undercounts seniors, and networks dread the stigma of too many of these undesirable eyeballs. It isn’t that seniors buy fewer goods; rather (the thinking goes) their brand preferences are more firmly established and thus less affected by advertising.

Surely, the Web will be more responsive! If television is ultimately an advertising vehicle, the Internet is more often a point of purchase. Much as the aging of the baby boom has expanded the political clout of groups like the American Association of Retired People, seniors will also exert considerable clout within the digital marketplace. Right now, seniors are more cautious than younger consumers about trusting their credit card information to online vendors, but evidence suggests this is changing. Moreover, the Web is defined as much by its users as by commercial designers. As more seniors go online, they will likely build their own Web-retirement communities.

Like most other seniors, my mother used the Internet mostly to maintain contact with her increasingly diasporic family. She loved to receive digital photographs or notes and would circulate them to an expanding network of relatives and old family friends. This past summer, I wrote her a travel diary from Asia, which became much more detailed when I discovered how many people were on the forwarding list for my messages. Our correspondence had increased dramatically in her final years. Somehow, it was easier for both of us to drop each other e-mails rather than pick up the phone, and through this process we got to know each other better than ever before. She printed the messages she received and collected them in albums alongside family photos, creating a much more compelling record of our thoughts and everyday lives for future generations.

She also participated in Internet communities composed of her Sunday school class or friends from her amateur painting club; these lists were touchingly effective at rallying support for members who were sick or housebound. They also helped watch each others’ backs, tapping a large network of family members to debunk the scams and urban myths that plague seniors. For example, my mother sent me a notice being widely circulated among conservative Christians that atheist crusader Madelyn Murray O’Hair was petitioning the Federal Communications Commission to ban prayer on television, a rumor so widespread that the FCC had put up a page denying it. When I reported back on my investigation, my message got widely forwarded among mother’s friends on the church list and beyond.

For my mother, the computer became a new resource for arts and crafts. She loved to make cards and posters or to design the covers of her Sunday school directory using Printshop; she loved to scan photographs into the computer and then crop or enlarge them; she searched out new models for her paintings or inspiration for Christmas decorations.
As my father’s mobility decreased, mother did much of her shopping via the Web. She took advantage of online banking services to balance the family books. She used the Web to decipher or contextualize the information her doctors gave her. She had even printed out a living will downloaded from the Web. She and dad had anticipated doing grocery shopping online once they were homebound, but the decline of the dotcoms has left dad high and dry.

Being wired also brought frustrations for mom and other seniors. As I was weeding through her e-mail account after her death, I was shocked by the sheer amount of penis-enlargement, Viagra, and “hot teens” spam mom endured just to read those messages from the church ladies. Somehow, in all of the debates about protecting kids from Web porn, I have never heard anyone mention how harassing these e-mails are when they target seniors!

Just as many seniors hold onto older cars, my parent’s computer had fallen further and further out of date, making it impossible to access the newer and flashier Web sites. Additionally, because they lived in an older neighborhood, their phone and cable companies had postponed laying down the cables that would enable high-speed access. I dream of showing my father how to listen to Webcasts of old radio shows, but until broadband reaches his home, it is impossibile. Many Web sites use fonts that viewers with failing eyesight have trouble reading, or require mouse manipulations that are hard for those with arthritis; new guidelines help designers design for seniors, but only a few sites currently follow those specifications.

There is nothing spectacular about how my mother used her computer. Yet, the importance of digital technologies lies not in profound changes to our core institutions but in subtle shifts in the ways we lead our everyday lives. Web designers had better learn what they can from the first generation of early adopters before the onslaught of the baby boom reaches retirement age.

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