For decades, seniors have been stereotyped as being “technologically backward,” not willing to adopt new ways of communicating or learning. This may have been true in the past, but it is far less so today. According to the Pew Research Center, 67% of all seniors were using the internet in 2018. That was before the pandemic, and this event has surely made the internet and mobile digital devices, tablets and smart phones, more used than ever.

Basic internet and digital skills are now as important to seniors as they are to younger people. These skills can help to keep seniors safe, connected, mobile, informed, even well educated. They are as important today as a telephone connection was in the 1950s or basic reading was in the early 1900s. Still, many seniors do not feel confident doing basic digital tasks like instant messaging, completing a Google search or using a social media platform like Facebook. These skills can make daily life far easier, especially while the pandemic continues.

Take a minute to think about the digital skills you do (and don’t) have and how they affect daily life. Each senior will have a somewhat different set of needs, resources and knowledge, but there are few lives that cannot be improved by learning new digital skills.

Digital and internet skills are now moving from old platforms like desktop and laptop computers to smartphones and tablets. Both are important, but for several reasons seniors are still more likely to use the older form factors, desktops and laptops. Reading from, listening to, viewing and typing on a laptop or desktop is easier because of screen and keyboard size. That is true, but more and more seniors are using smartphones, especially for apps like messaging, driving directions, ride-hailing or address location.

Whatever computer or mobile device a senior is using, there are some basic digital and internet skills common to most users. Here are a few that you should definitely have.

Setting up an e-mail or user account—This is a fundamental step and necessary before other functions can be used. New computers and phones come with built-in, step-by-step guides to get you started. If you are intimidated by this process, it would help to have an experienced person aid you if social distancing allows. Here are some hints about setting up new computers or phones.

  • Create and write down a username and a password before you start this setup. Typically, passwords are required to be at least eight characters long, and some sites have requirements like at least one number, one capital letter or one special character.
  • Go through the setup process slowly, taking time to read each screen. Most new devices come loaded with software that you may not want. If you are unsure about installing or activating a function during setup, it is best to decline it.

Choosing a browser—A browser is just a program that connects users to the internet. Windows-based machines will come with the Microsoft Edge browser installed, while Apple devices will have Safari included. If you prefer Google Chrome, you will have to download it from Google’s website. Many people do prefer Chrome because it easily links to Android phones and you can use the same password and username to sign into Gmail and products like YouTube, Google Play, and Google Drive.

There are many other browser products like Firefox or Opera. Each has its pluses, but it might be best to stick to one of the basic three listed above if you are new.

Doing a basic search—Learn how to use the browser’s search box and how to phrase questions. For example, if you are looking for a place to eat, asking for “Italian restaurants near me” will give better results than simply, “Italian restaurants.”

Learn to use YouTube—YouTube is not just a source of entertainment (often silly), it can also teach digital skills like how to use your Android or Apple phone. The quality of YouTube material varies widely. Some bits are amateurish and unusable, but many are well done by knowledgeable experts. You can learn anything from how to bake wheat bread to how to write computer programs.

YouTube has its own search box at the top of the homepage. Using this search tool, you can build out your digital skills. YouTube’s explanations about many tasks are often better than the manufacturer’s own help page. Take a look at the OurSeniors.net YouTube Channel or go to the YouTube homepage and use the search term, “OurSeniors.net.”

Instant messaging—This is usually done on smartphones, although applications like Facebook provide messaging services on their website. Many seniors find this is a very useful function, providing a quick way to stay in contact, ask a question or request help. Instant messaging varies from phones and service providers; a great way to learn the basics is to use the YouTube search function mentioned above. You can find video examples for your phone and provider service. Entering a search like, “messaging on moto6” will show you dozens of videos on this specific topic.

Get a Facebook account—Seniors are big users of Facebook! They use it to see pictures of family, exchange greetings, get news, weather reports and “follow” the activities of friends, celebrities, sports teams or even political leaders. It is fair to say that for many, Facebook is the internet. To get a Facebook account, you will have to sign up at the login page, giving basic information like name, email address, etc. If you have a Google account, that information can be used.

Facebook has thousands of special interest groups where people share information on subjects ranging from surf fishing reports to political viewpoints. Keep in mind that some Facebook pages are there to express a narrow viewpoint, and the page owners do not always stick to the truth. One Facebook page that you can count on for accurate and timely information is our own OurSeniors.net Facebook page.

Ordering online—Online shopping services like Amazon have made life during the Covid pandemic far more tolerable. This is especially true for seniors, who were advised to limit visits to stores. Amazon is the best known of these services, but there are many others; stores like Home Depot, Walmart, CVS and others all have online ordering services. Online searches and ordering are often the best way, or the only way, to find less common items like odd shoe sizes or a part for appliance repair.

These are only a few of the skills that seniors find useful. After you have the basics, you can easily move on to more specialized skills like storing data online, finding entertainment or reading online books. Digital and internet skills are going to become more and more a part of senior life.

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