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UMSL’s Vicki Sauter guides increasingly-connected seniors to safe Internet use

Vicki Sauter holds her book, "You're Never Too Old to Surf."
Áine O'Connor | St. Louis Public Radio
Vicki Sauter holds her book, "You're Never Too Old to Surf."

Recent data collected by the Pew Research Center shows that while the proportion of Internet-using senior citizens is increasing, older Americans lag far behind their younger counterparts in adopting technology that seems inextricably tied to modern life.

Many seniors are quite detached from the Internet: in 2014, Pew reported that 41% did not use it at all, compared with the 23% who did not own cell phones. But as the Internet and its accompanying tech become more and more important for communication and research—and make day-to-day tasks like shopping easier—seniors are beginning to engage more deeply with the online world.

Technology moves fast, though, the Internet and all the devices used to access it are being revolutionized daily. Knowing this, UMSL professor of management information systems Vicki Sauter has written a book that helps seniors engage productively with rapidly-changing tech: titled “You’re Never Too Old to Surf: A Senior’s Guide to Safe Internet Use,” it aims to make older Americans more comfortable with the world that many take for granted.


 Sauter said that older people are missing out on a new and omnipresent mode of communication—“Communication with children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren,” of course, but also with friends and sources of information.

The Internet is a gathering place, a library, a social tool—“a tremendous resource,” Sauter said, which older individuals learn to value when they learn to use it. The problem lies in getting started, and in knowing what opportunities each Internet application—Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter—offers.

“What I try to do is introduce each topic [and] draw it back to something in their life,” Sauter said. “How does it relate to something they’re used to doing?” Some things correspond easily: email is like writing letters, and updating antivirus software or patches is like securing your house.

Some things, she said, are harder—understanding which email offers are fake, or which ads are malicious, is a question of intuition. And when technology changes so quickly, instructing older individuals on the correct tools and techniques to use becomes seriously challenging, and at times dangerous. Older individuals are often more open to exploitation in the form of scams or identity theft, and the concept of having to change settings—walking the fine line between public interaction and private information—can be difficult to explain.

The challenge is especially frustrating for younger relatives, Sauter said. “If you think about trying to teach someone how to ride a bicycle—it’s hard, because you get on and you know what to do. The same is true with these kids and using the Internet. They don’t know of a time when they didn’t have the Internet, and so it just comes totally natural to them.”

“I wrote the book for them, too,” Sauter said, in the hopes that with the right instruction and helpful cues, seniors might close the Internet usage gap.   

St. Louis on the Air discusses issues and concerns facing the St. Louis area. The show is produced by Mary Edwards and Alex Heuer and hosted by veteran journalist Don Marsh. Follow us on Twitter: @STLonAir.

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