Loneliness is not a bug with a technological solution

Helping elderly people to use the internet is a good idea. But let’s not mistake broadband connections for social ones


‘Anyone who has spent time with elderly people knows the real issues are much more complex.’

In the UK, four out of 10 over-65s do not have internet access. At a time when so much of our lives is conducted online – the payment of bills, access to information – that should be a real source of concern about potential social exclusion.

But does this mean that by widening internet access, elderly people will feel more socially connected? Or, even, more radically, as a new report suggests, could this be a solution for loneliness in old age?

The centre-right Policy Exchange thinktank makes such claims as part of its forthcoming technology manifesto. It recommends £875m should be spent on training the 6.2 million mainly elderly people who are without basic digital skills.

The report claims these skills would provide older people with a way to stay connected to friends and family, and could therefore ease the isolation of those who live alone, while saving many millions for the NHS and in state-subsidised care home places.

Loneliness among the elderly is certainly a massive problem. Recent research by Age UK has shown that one in three older people are plagued by loneliness, and that this has dire effects on their health.

On first sight, claims about the potential benefit of digital connection for the elderly appear to be backed up by research. The International Longevity Centre recently found that 7.5 million adults have never used the internet – most of them elderly, disabled or poor. Of those who had not been online, 63% often felt lonely, compared with just 38% of those who did use the internet.

But these figures, and their policy conclusions, need to be treated with caution – not least because they may lead to money being invested in a technological fix when the answers are more complex and human. Loneliness in old age doesn’t occur just because older people haven’t learned to use the internet (a problem that will increasingly disappear as a more technologically literate generation ages).

Loneliness among the elderly is also to do with poverty and declining health. On the one hand, financial hardship restricts their activities; on the other, it increases frailty – including the loss of mobility, eyesight or memory, all of which undermine confidence when moving around in the wider community.

It is often these other factors that will restrict access to the internet, even for those who might once have been able to use it. To access the internet, you need money, or skilled neighbours and friends, to fix glitches; you need eyesight to read screens and memory to recall passwords.

Those findings that “prove” that the elderly who are digitally connected are also more socially connected require caution. At first sight, they too appear to be common sense. We have only to think of the incredibly energetic 80-year-olds who are internet savvy, regularly emailing their family and friends, and appearing to gain huge benefit. Yet the truth is that these people are often the ones whose health and financial situation would have kept them socially connected and in the centre of their families and communities, with or without the internet.

Anyone who has spent time with elderly people knows the real issues are much more complex. Of course internet use comes into it. But at its core, loneliness among the elderly still has other causes and effects: missing seeing people regularly, missing casual conversations, missing being able to get out and feel safe. What the elderly value is seeing regular friendly faces, having their basic needs taken care of by real human beings, and being able to walk to places where they can still interact with real people.

It is ironic that these reports highlighting how the internet can solve loneliness for the elderly are running in parallel with reports and academic studies warning young people not to mistake social interaction on the internet with friendship.

This week, research from Australia on loneliness among teenagers showed that the “loneliest” were also the most prone to sharing – or “oversharing” – intimate details on the internet. News stories constantly highlight how teenagers who are suicidally unhappy can be extremely active on social media. Indeed, there are suggestions that internet dependency can be linked to social alienation rather than social connection.

None of which is to say that the provision of basic internet skills for the elderly would be anything other than a good thing. On the basis of social justice alone, promoting universal digital competence is to be supported, and there could be very real and immediate benefits. But we shouldn’t elevate it into something it isn’t – the solution to loneliness and a way of keeping elderly people out of care provision for longer.

It’s a means to an end. The end, in this case, is human contact, human warmth, human kindness. A better way to those ends are services designed to bring about that face-to-face human contact, and communities designed to meet the needs of groups of people who are less mobile and able-bodied than they once were but still crave company.