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Many people use the Internet for political topics, but this activity is not equally distributed across the population with those more educated more likely to do so, inequalities mirroring offline differences in such participation (Smith, 2013). We know little about how online political participation may differ among older adults, because most research tends to focus on younger people or general population samples where adults above a certain age (often 65) are collapsed into one group making it impossible to identify age-related differences within this group (Hunsaker & Hargittai, 2018). This paper fills a gap in the literature by collecting nuanced measures of older adults’ Internet uses to examine differences among them with respect to their participation in political discussions online.
Adults 65+ make up an increasing portion of the population and are going online at higher rates than ever before: 66% in the US (Pew Research Center, 2018). While considerable literature has considered this group’s Internet uses (see Hunsaker & Hargittai, 2018 for a review), it has done so in very narrow ways, primarily focusing on who among them is or is not online, or who among them does or does not use social media (e.g., Yu, Ellison, McCammon, & Langa, 2016). Some research has started considering differences in uses and Internet skills (Eszter Hargittai & Dobransky, 2017; Eszter Hargittai, Piper, & Morris, 2018) the latter a variable that has been linked to how people incorporate the Internet into their lives (Litt, 2013). But little research has explored differences in older adults’ social media uses.
Studies of adult populations rarely distinguish between the experiences of the younger old and oldest old. Today’s younger old (60-65) were likely in their 40s and 50s when they first started using the Internet making them potentially much more experienced than their older counterparts. Accordingly, it is important not to assume universal experiences across older users. Political discussion tends to be the domain of older adults yet we know very little about who among them participates in this way online.
To address this gap, we surveyed 1,026 U.S. older adults ages 60 and over in summer, 2018. We contracted with the online research firm Cint to administer our study to a diverse group of older adults. In order to achieve a diverse sample, we set quotas for age, gender, race/ethnicity, and education. Age quotas ensured that our sample did not simply include younger aged older adults so that we could compare people across this population.
We focused on measuring online activities especially concentrating on social media use. The questions of central concern to this paper ask whether respondents “belong to any online communities that are specifically devoted to” politics, 11% indicated that they do so; and whether respondents “have participated in meaningful online discussions devoted to” politics, which 32% indicated having done so at least once or twice, of whom half had done it three or more times. The paper examines the characteristics of older adults who engage in such ways online including considerations of not just socio-demographics, but also their Internet experiences and skills.
Hargittai, E., & Dobransky, K. (2017). Old Dogs, New Clicks: Digital Inequality in Skills and Uses among Older Adults. Canadian Journal of Communication, 42(2), 195–212. https://doi.org/10.22230/cjc2017v42n2a3176
Hargittai, E., Piper, A. M., & Morris, M. R. (2018). From Internet Access to Internet Skills: Digital Inequality Among Older Adults. Universal Access in the Information Society, 1–10. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10209-018-0617-5
Hunsaker, A., & Hargittai, E. (2018). A review of Internet use among older adults: New Media & Society. https://doi.org/10.1177/1461444818787348
Litt, E. (2013). Measuring Users’ Internet Skills: A Review of Past Assessments and A Look Toward The Future. New Media & Society, 15(4), 612–630. https://doi.org/10.1177/1461444813475424
Pew Research Center. (2018). Internet/Broadband Fact Sheet. Pew Research Center. Retrieved from http://www.pewinternet.org/fact-sheet/internet-broadband/
Smith, A. (2013). Civic engagement in the digital age. Washington D. C.: Pew Research Center Internet & American Life Project. Retrieved from http://www.pewinternet.org/2013/04/25/civic-engagement-in-the-digital-age/
Yu, R. P., Ellison, N. B., McCammon, R. J., & Langa, K. M. (2016). Mapping the two levels of digital divide: Internet access and social network site adoption among older adults in the USA. Information, Communication & Society, 19(10), 1445–1464. https://doi.org/10.1080/1369118X.2015.1109695