Nearly 85 percent of adults go online regularly. But only 58 percent of people 65 and older are regular Internet users. It's never too late to learn, but novice users who are older will need a lot of support getting started.
"People in their 70s and 80s and even past that age tend to be on the wrong side of the digital divide," says Shelia Cotten, a professor of media and information at Michigan State University. Cotten, who has published several studies on older adults and technology, has just finished research that found tablets can bridge the digital gap for people with little or no computer experience.
"They're so much easier in many ways for older adults to use," Cotten says. You don't need a mouse, which some older seniors find difficult to operate. Programs can be run by simply tapping the screen.
There are hurdles to getting an older adult to use a tablet. First, many don't see the need for one. "If they can't see how it will be relevant to their lives, they're not going to be interested in crossing the digital divide," Cotten says.
This is where family members or friends are important. The idea is to show the older senior how using a tablet -- primarily to access the Internet -- can improve their lives. "It's not just enough to give them the device, because that's not going to solve any problems," she says. "You have to help them be able to effectively use that tool."
Some seniors may be swayed by how easy it is to send and receive email with photos. Others might find the ability to research their health an indispensable feature. And those with poor vision may be amazed at how a tablet can become an e-reader with adjustable fonts, allowing them to read books easily.
While tablets are easy to use, setting them up to access the Internet may be beyond the technological knowledge of someone who never used a computer. Other hardware and services may also be necessary to get online. Again, family and friends can help.
Once online, there are immediate benefits. A study published by Cotten last year found that Internet use by older adults reduced their risk of depression by 30 percent. The reason: Many who were lonely found new interests and friends online. "It's about the social connections," she says. "That's the main conduit though which technology has a positive impact on quality of life."
Consumer Reports has a buyer's guide to tablets at nwsdy.li/tablets.