Old tech

New push to help elderly bridge the digital divide


In January, a month before Chinese New Year, a series of photos showing an old man crying on the floor of a Shanghai railway station went viral.

He wanted to buy a ticket to Suzhou to see his family over the upcoming festival. He had the money, but no smartphone or internet access. Every time a new batch of tickets was released he went to the station to get in line and buy one in the old fashioned manner (i.e. queuing at a booth). All six times he made the journey they were sold out.“Buy it online” the staff told him, “It is quicker and more convenient”. Eventually he collapsed in frustration and began begging passersby for help.

China has seen a digital revolution in recent years. In cities like Beijing many people no longer carry cash, preferring instead to pay with mobile phone apps such as Alipay and WeChat Pay.

Taxis, hospital appointments, tables in restaurants – everything can now be booked in advance and online, and increasingly this is becoming the norm, meaning those that who don’t do it this way miss out.

A case in point: the elderly are being left behind in this technological shift. Only 10% of China’s 750 million internet users are over the age of 50, a recent report by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences found.

Small fonts, difficulty navigating complicated apps, fear of being cheated or defrauded, all stop the over-fifties making more use of China’s new ‘digital way of life’, it said. It warned that failure to include this group would leave them “isolated” and that the necessity of getting the elderly online is only becoming more important as Chinese society is aging.

China currently has 241 million people over the age of 60 and that number is expected to rise to 487 million, or 35% of the population by 2050.

Yet this group also presents an opportunity – an untapped market. Currently only 30 million Chinese seniors use the online shopping platform Taobao.

In order to encourage older people to get online several organisations are now running training courses to teach the over-fifties how to use computers and smartphones.

At a recent class in the eastern city of Ningbo a man named Fang told he was attending because he was fed up of waiting in line at the hospital to get an appointment. “The young people book it directly, we pensioners still queue up because we don’t use the online registrations service.”

The city has plans to hold 1,000 classes this year to get 10,000 people over the age of 45 online. A Beijing-based NGO called See Young, founded in 2011, has already taught basic digital literacy to some 20,000 senior citizens. “In a fast developing society, we are afraid of being left behind by the young,” Xinhua quoted one of their elderly students as saying.

The big tech companies have also got in on the act. Last September WeChat produced a series of instructional videos teaching senior citizens how to send voice messages, add friends, enlarge text and send emojis. To launch the series they produced a music video showing seniors rapping about their desire to learn how to use the app.

In January Alibaba placed ads to recruit two senior citizen “consultants”.

This February the company’s C2C shopping platform introduced a “family channel” so elderly parents could show their offspring what they want to buy and the children can then pay for it digitally. In a press release ahead of the new shared account’s launch the company said it hoped the new function would increase communication between the generations.

One woman interviewed by the Bejing News said she and her daughter now regularly chat via Taobao about things they want to buy.

Another young man told Xinhua it helps put his mind at ease because he can check what his parents are buying. “It’s like I am going to the market with them,” he said­. n

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