Early research on older adult computer users focused on the possibility for technology to increase social interaction and alleviate loneliness. Subsequent research has been equivocal on the possible benefits of the Internet for well-being. Nonetheless, in spite of an initial “gray gap,” older adults are increasingly joining younger cohorts in using the Internet. Barriers to older adults’ use of the Internet remain, such as physical and cognitive limitations. Attitudinal barriers may exist, but it is unclear whether these result from lack of experience or differences in income or health status. Business researchers have found that older persons differ from other age groups in their Internet engagement patterns, including online buying. Future research directions include whether computers can improve cognitive functioning and quality of life, how to increase engagement levels, and if there will always be a lag in technology use among older adults.
The earliest publications concerning older persons’ Internet behaviors – before the word Internet was ever used - focused on the initially speculative idea that technological solutions, connected computers included, could be applied to the ordinary daily lives of older persons in their homes and communities. Theorists initially centered their attention on two-way communication, especially to mitigate perceived loneliness. For example, Ramm and Gianturco (1973), computer scientist and psychiatrist, respectively, conceived of a “picture communication system with the aid of computers” that could aid in personalized entertainment and personalized education” as well as “allowing a person to work at home” (p. 325) in order to fight isolation and feelings of uselessness.
Elderly persons’ communication through computer technology was also the focus of the first published experiment in this area. Danowski and Sacks (1980), communications researchers, conducted a small quasi-experimental study with 30 middle income retirees living in a senior citizen complex in Los Angeles, USA. To the seeming surprise of the researchers, participants preferred interactive, real-time computer messaging with other users more than playing computer games. As Ramm and Gianturco (1973) had predicted, there were significant increases among the 13 post-treatment respondents in feeling more self-confident and less alone, and in the belief that computers can aid senior citizens. The authors concluded that online computers enhance elderly users’ control and influence over the social environment.