If you are uncomfortable calling yourself an “analogue native” and feel as skilled as a digital native, it might be because you are part of a new typology – the digital curious – which has emerged from a recent study published in the latest issue of The European Journal for Research on the Education and Learning of Adults (RELA)
The study examines the 55-65 age group’s attitudes towards information technology, particularly when IT places them in contact – directly or indirectly – with younger or older people. We are familiar with the typologies known as digital natives (those born after 1980), digital immigrants (those born in the 1960s-70s) and analogue natives (those born before the 1960s). But an analysis of nationwide statistics collected in Italy has revealed an additional group which appears to differ from the others and to fall exactly between analogue natives and digital immigrants.
ISTAT, the Italian Statistics Institute, collects data on the use of computers (since 2000) and Internet (since 2005) by the Italian population. The only age group showing a significant difference in use from older and younger groups is people born between 1952 and 1961. IT use by this generational wave appears to differ significantly from that of the older and younger generations, although in the latter case it is less prominent. The differences between other cohorts are less noticeable and have not changed particularly over time.
A study carried out between 2009 and 2011 on IT use by men and women born between 1950 and 1970 looked at how their attitude towards computers emerged and evolved since the early 1980s, when the first PCs appeared in Italy. Those interviewed made numerous references to the diverse relationships they have with younger and older people. Using ISTAT data, in 2015 a new study began exploring these relationships, limiting the sample group to those in the cohort, which is riding the wave of information technology.
References to the interviewees’ curiosity towards the earliest personal computers in the 1980s go to explain how they have retained their interest in the intervening years. The most significant issue to emerge from the second round of interviews is the interviewees’ two-fold awareness of the importance of applying IT in their daily lives and their skills in this sense.
Their awareness affects their relationships with younger and older people, whether or not they belong to their families. What emerges is the way this influences relationships in quite unexpected ways, contrary to the popular view which places digital and non-digital natives at two opposite ends of the spectrum.
Let’s begin with their relationships with their elders, the analogue natives. Alessandra (not her real name) describes her 82-year-old uncle. “We found a solution: he agrees to learn the ‘theory’, meaning simply what it is feasible to do nowadays with a computer or a smartphone. Without using them, actually. He simply gets the information I give him. Last year the heating system broke after a sudden frost. The company he called to fix the problem told him to record the noise the heater was making and email it to them so the technician could understand the problem. My uncle listened, did not blink, said ‘ok’, phoned me - on the landline! - immediately and asked me ‘could you come here with your mobile phone, record the noise and send it to the technician?’”
Fulvio, 59, talks about his 90-year-old aunt. “She still enjoys reading, she does not care much about anything else. So I gave her a gift, a Kindle, and now everything is fine. She says she gets less tired, that she can read in bed, on the couch, at home, in the garden, if she falls asleep she does not lose track of where she is in the text, she does not have to keep the light on in the bedroom. I had to modify the font size, she needs a very big one. Conclusion: a 100% positive choice.”
Their relationships with younger people, the digital natives, are not bound by a sense of inferiority. Quite the opposite, in fact. But the digitally curious are well aware of age-based prejudices. “Young people think that adults don’t know how to use a computer or, if they do, they only know the basics. It doesn’t matter if they’re 50, 70 or 90 – they don’t make any distinction,” a 56-year-old teacher told me. However, this doesn’t undermine their awareness of their skills. One interviewee laughed as he told me about his grandchildren. “They think they can teach you something they’ve just learned, but they only have a basic grasp of it. Then they lose their patience if you ask for explanations, because they don’t know anything beyond what they’ve told you.” Many people say that the digital natives’ supposed expertise doesn’t hold up to the facts. “They think they know it all, but they get taken in very easily. They go onto websites which cause them problems, or sign up for things without realising it, and then it’s up to me to solve the issues. It’s cost me money on several occasions.”
These anecdotes reveal that technology plays an important role in the group’s daily relationships. When it comes to their view of themselves and younger and older people, in one case stereotypes and preconceptions are overturned (there is no sense of intimidation towards digital natives) and in the other it creates a sense of solidarity and empathy (understanding the daily problems of people closer to their age makes them more willing to help teach them how to use technology).
What might be the impact, for example, on the adult education sector? Firstly, a move towards new inter-generational learning pathways. People born between 1952 and 1961 or thereabouts might be a more efficient resource than digital natives; they could become involved in non-formal and informal IT training projects aimed at the over-65s, very few of whom use computers or the Internet.
We should also consider pathways enabling young people to learn how to responsibly use Internet and social media alongside older, skilled users.
The study is exploratory; further research on the most significant sample groups is therefore needed to show whether the digitally curious are a consistent typology or simply exceptions to the norm.
Might this be a solely Italian phenomenon? Probably not, as computers arrived on the global market at the same time (the early 1980s), influencing the lives of those who were old enough to learn to use them and young enough to start appreciating them – men and women aged between twenty and thirty. This will probably have led to similar situations where social conditions were similar.
In 2017 the same cohort began to turn 65, becoming official members of the “over-65s”, although they no longer seem to share the same relationship with technology. It remains true that 65 is more of a statistical threshold than a sociological one for defining the shifting boundaries of old age, a more diverse phenomenon which is cannot be linked to numerical age alone. However, at least as far as IT use is concerned, perhaps the time has come to seriously – and quickly – reconsider our views of the over-65s.