Seniors cross digital gap with youth support

By LI SISI / 08-15-2019 / (Chinese Social Sciences Today)
Chatting with their children on WeChat enhances elderly people’s sense of social participation, reduces loneliness, and improves self-sufficiency and life satisfaction. Photo: VCG

Population aging is severe in China. The Statistical Communiqué on China’s 2018 National Economic and Social Development shows that at the end of 2018, 17.9% of China’s population was aged 60 or above. Compared to other nations, China is aging at an unprecedented rate and scale. Therefore, it is urgent to find ways to tackle the problems facing an aging society. 

Intergenerational support
The elderly have long been seen as a passively and socially marginalized group. It was not until the end of the 20th century when positive psychology prevailed that the theory of positive aging began to gain traction. 
With the theory of positive aging, in addition to the security provided by the state and society, mass media—especially social media—has become indispensable to an increase in support for the elderly. Western scholars, such as Swiss scholar Tobias Nef, argue that social media can enhance elderly people’s sense of social participation, reduce loneliness, and improve self-sufficiency and life satisfaction. 
However, conventional social media, which mainly expands weak relationships, seems incompatible with the elderly groups in China. In contrast, WeChat, a popular chatting app by internet giant Tencent, appears to be an exception.
To some extent, WeChat, which is simple and easy to use, promotes the popularity of the internet among the elderly in China and provides a feasible path for the digital breakout of older adults. Considering the phenomenal popularity of WeChat among the elderly, it is not enough to simply analyze the functions and features of WeChat itself. 
It is true that the hypermedia nature of WeChat aggregates interpersonal communication, group communication and mass communication and that it helps build a collective identity for the marginalized elderly groups. However, the prevalence of WeChat among the elderly cannot be separated from the various forms of support provided by their offspring.
Confucianism has influenced China for thousands of years and has been incorporated into Chinese culture, so even though the traditional custom of several generations living together has been abandoned, parents and children still support each other through various material and spiritual forms. 
This economic reciprocity, mutual assistance in life and mutual emotional support between generations, as well as the process of sharing life experience and resources, is what we define as intergenerational support. In this sense, intergenerational support is a mutual exchange and a two-way street. This article focuses on the bottom-up intergenerational support, meaning the support provided by children to parents.
In fact, intergenerational support plays an important role in the elderly’s adoption and usage of WeChat, both at the technical level and in terms of emotional support and affirmation. In essence, this process is an initiative to bridge the digital gap between generations. 
The digital gap is a metaphor for the inequality of different groups in the face of new information technology, which includes the huge gap between different age groups in the acceptance of new media, frequency of use and knowledge acquisition. The digital gap can be divided into three stages: access, usage and knowledge, in which intergenerational support plays different roles.
Access gap
Intergenerational support in WeChat is first reflected in the access stage, when the elderly learn to download WeChat. Digital divide theory refers to the equipment difference corresponding to this stage as the “access gap,” which initially refers to the gap in different regions or populations in acquiring information and communication technologies due to difference in infrastructure and economic conditions. 
For the elderly in China, WeChat access is determined by a mixture of social, physiological and psychological factors at the beginning stage. However, the most critical factor is still the attitude of the elderly toward new technology, which is greatly influenced by that of family members, especially their children.
Chinese communication scholar Zhou Yuqiong used the concept of “learned helplessness” to explain the psychological rejection when elderly face new technologies such as WeChat, and he pointed out that devices are the first obstacle to the digitalization of the elderly. 
However, purchasing smart phones and downloading WeChat apps often require the guidance and support of children, so it is inevitable for children to provide feedback to parents in terms of technology adoption. 
In most cases, intergenerational support lies not only in technical guidance, but also in helping the elderly to accept new media and lifestyles, so as to realize the value transformation in the digital age. This is the most important step in bridging the digital divide for the elderly, and also the first step in their digital integration.
Information compensation
After crossing the access gap, intergenerational support mainly takes the form of information compensation. The first kind of information compensation is completed through strengthening the communication between generations. As of today, WeChat has become the most popular communication tool among family members in China. 
Chatting with their children on WeChat, sharing their own life and learning about their children’s lives on WeChat Moments have become important channels of emotional communication for parents and children. As it turns out, the willingness of children to communicate and share somewhat determines the happiness and loneliness of the elderly group.
The second kind of information compensation is meant to ease the information anxiety caused by the internet. The huge amount of data in the cyberspace makes it difficult for the elderly to judge and filter the authenticity of information, which often leads to two extreme situations in the elderly group: information avoidance and rumor propagation. In these cases, the intervention of children can act as a gatekeeper and a filter, and to a certain extent ease the information anxiety of the elderly.
Media literacy 
The last stage is the knowledge gap, which refers to how people use digital technology to effect change in real life, or what we call media literacy. After all, knowledge itself is a kind of social capital. For the marginalized elderly group, the application of digital media technology and knowledge can also be transformed into social capital, and they can use it to gain recognition and affirmation among their peers. 
The cultivation and enhancement of such media literacy also needs the support of the children. However, the intergenerational support has a limited role because it is still mostly secondary to the elderly’s own willingness to learn and other factors.
The elderly aged 60 or above mostly were born before the 1950s, when education levels lagged behind. This elderly group’s knowledge structures, mindsets and living habits have taken shape before the digital era. Therefore, in the face of new media formats, their willingness and capacity for adaptation are at a low level. In this aspect, the intergenerational support is far from enough. Compared with the access and usage gap, the knowledge gap requires a much longer process, which needs the collective efforts of the community, society and government.
However, we don’t need to be pessimistic. The data from the China Internet Network Information Center shows that the number of elderly above 60 stayed at 1% of the total population for a long time and only began to surge in 2014. Until June 2018, the percentage of elderly aged 60 or above in the whole population stayed stable at 5.4%. This indicates that the elderly who were aged from 50 to 59 began to enter the elderly population. This group has a much higher acceptance of new technology, so the digital gap in the Chinese elderly group will be changed considerably.
To sum up, in the elderly’s adoption and use of WeChat, the most important role of intergenerational support lies in bridging the access gap, whereas its role in bridging the knowledge gap is relatively limited. In the meantime, compared with technical guidance and assistance, the positive and emotional role of intergenerational support cannot be overlooked. 
Intergenerational interaction among families is an important way to narrow the digital gap. In the interactive process, the children lead the parents to integrate into the digital age. This bottom-up feedback on new media skills, knowledge and related culture and values is called digital feedback, which serves as the most important means of addressing the digital divide in today’s era.
However, at present, digital feedback in China is mainly a one-way, passive help-oriented technical matter, while intergenerational support puts more emphasis on the dominant and positive attitude of the children. How to combine the dynamics of intergenerational support with digital feedback and how to construct a feedback mechanism for the whole society still need to be further discussed. 
True digital integration lies not only in the adoption of new technologies, but also in the self-empowerment and improvement of our quality of life via technologies. In this sense, there is still a long way to go for the positive digital integration of the elderly in China.
Li Sisi is from the School of Journalism and Communication at Hubei University of Economics.
edited by YANG XUE