Background The COVID-19 pandemic brought about an increased reliance on the Internet for various daily activities. Given the known digital divide, it is important to understand whether older adults changed their Internet use patterns, but current evidence is limited to cross-sectional studies. This study documents changes in the frequency and types of Internet use among older adults during the pandemic, and the factors predicting regular use.
Methods The English Longitudinal Study of Ageing is nationally representative of adults aged 50+ in England, with a 75% response in their COVID-19 data collection (June/July 2020). To produce representative estimates, we apply the relevant survey weights to all analyses (N=6,840). We examine within-individual changes in the likelihood of daily Internet use and different types of use using individual fixed-effects models, which eliminate time-invariant confounders, and we further adjust for time-varying confounders. We analyse the pre-COVID-19 demographic, economic, and social factors predicting use during the pandemic, using a linear probability model. All estimations are conducted using Stata 17.0.
Results There was no change in the likelihood of daily Internet use between 2018/19 and during the pandemic. Daily use during the pandemic was negatively related to age, neighbourhood deprivation, and loneliness, and positively related to partnership status, education, employment, income, and organisation membership. These findings are robust to different frequency thresholds (e.g., weekly, monthly) and when using an ordinal logistic model to account for these thresholds. During the pandemic, there was an increase in Internet use for making video and voice calls (44–65% higher than pre-pandemic use) and getting information about Government services (39–68% higher than pre-pandemic use), but a decrease in finding information on health-related issues (43–56% lower than pre-pandemic use). Increased use for getting information about Government services was more likely among women than among men (by 7–53%), and among those with lower, than among those with higher, wealth (by 2–47%). Older adults with higher education were more likely (by 18–51%) than those with lower education to have decreased Internet searching for health-related information.
Conclusion Despite the increased digitalisation of services over the pandemic, there was no further increase in regular Internet use among older adults. Users were nevertheless more engaged in Internet-based communication and information about Government services, which was important given the social restrictions and overall uncertainty during the pandemic. As the world moves towards digital alternatives post-pandemic, it is important to continually ensure older adults are not at risk of exclusion.
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