Tech savvy or tech addicted? Older adults are stuck on screens, too

Another report this week from market researcher Nielsen found that Americans over the age of 50 are fueling growth in video-streaming services such as YouTube, Netflix and Hulu
Another report this week from market researcher Nielsen found that Americans over the age of 50 are fueling growth in video-streaming services such as YouTube, Netflix and Hulu


Older adults spend nearly 10 hours a day on their devices, and it can leave younger generations rolling their eyes

As families gather this summer, kids and their parents might be surprised to find how tech-obsessed the grandparents have become.

A recent report from AARP, the advocacy organization for older adults, found that the tech habits older people developed during the pandemic are enduring. Americans ages 65 and up are using smartphones and tablets more often for reading news and playing games. They’re also broadening their social-media use and doing more banking and shopping online.

Another report this week from market researcher Nielsen found that Americans over the age of 50 are fueling growth in video-streaming services such as YouTube, Netflix and Hulu.

The pandemic forced many older adults to learn how to make FaceTime and Zoom calls to stay in touch with relatives and friends—and how to stream videos for entertainment. While Covid-19 accelerated tech adoption among this group of adults, it also caused them to develop some device dependency, said Indira Venkat, senior vice president of research at AARP.

Adult children of some older people say they worry screens are getting in the way of family time during visits with the grandkids. Phone use during meals is of particular concern.

“My dad is the one who pulls his cellphone out at the dinner table," said Margy Stratton, a substitute teacher in Milwaukee and the mother of three kids, ages 15, 19 and 21. “My teens know that during a family dinner, their phones don’t even come to the table."

Ms. Stratton said her father carries his phone in his pocket and removes it frequently, whether at dinner or when he’s sitting on the couch. “I’m not annoyed by it," she said. “It’s more like a fond eye roll."

Fred Stratton, the 83-year-old retired chief executive of an outdoor-equipment manufacturer, said he mostly uses his iPhone 11 to talk to people and to listen to podcasts. He also reads news on his phone, researches things he’s curious about and checks the weather.

He admits he’s guilty of using his phone during dinner, partly because his hearing aids are connected to his iPhone through Bluetooth. He hears every notification ding, which prompts him to check his phone. Sometimes he glances at his Apple Watch instead.

“I’m so attached to this thing. If I leave the house and forget my phone, I’ll go back to get it," he said. “Who knew this thing would be what it is today? Maybe Steve Jobs knew."

The family has season tickets to the Milwaukee Brewers, and their seats are behind the dugout, which is often shown on camera. One day, while a game was on TV, Ms. Stratton spotted her father in his seat—looking at his phone.

“Busted," he said.

Even before Covid-19, older Americans were spending more time on screens than younger ones. Americans 65 and older use screens nearly 10 hours a day. The bulk of it is spent in front of TVs, according to a 2019 Nielsen report. A study published last year in JAMA Pediatrics found that teens spend an average of almost eight hours a day in front of a screen—like their grandparents, they devote most of that time to watching or streaming videos, movies or TV shows.

Parents have good reason to worry about kids’ tech use. Certain kinds of screen use can adversely affect their developing brains, and social media has been linked to eating disorders among teen girls. Those issues don’t apply to older people. Studies even suggest that certain digital games can sharpen cognition and that using smartphones can help them combat loneliness.

Some tech-savvy older adults view their devices as a way to pursue their interests, not mindlessly pass the time crushing candy.

Rick Mangun, a 69-year-old retired fine-arts teacher in New Lenox, Ill., has always been an early adopter of technology. He has an iPhone 13 Pro, a MacBook Pro, an iMac and a Fitbit. He composes music on his computers, manages smart-home devices from his phone and follows friends on Facebook and Instagram.

During the pandemic, he and his wife, Kathie Mangun, gave up cable, bought a Roku player and started streaming with Disney+, Netflix and Amazon Prime Video. Since the couple is planning a trip to Europe later this year, Mr. Mangun is using the language app Duolingo to learn German.

His daughter-in-law, Melissa Schriver-Mangun, a fashion designer in Brooklyn, said that while Ms. Mangun is quick to put her iPad or phone away when she visits her grandsons, ages 5 and 7, Mr. Mangun is often on his phone.

“It doesn’t bother me that the kids see him on his phone," said Ms. Schriver-Mangun of her father-in-law. “My concern is more that they are missing out on valuable time together and potentially feeling ignored."

Mr. Mangun said he tries to keep his phone in his pocket as much as possible when visiting his family.

“Yes, the children do see me on my phone," Mr. Mangun said, explaining that he likes to show them videos of their cousins. “When I am with my family, there is nothing more important to me than quality time I spend with my grandchildren."

Mr. Mangun spends a lot of time on an app called Behance, posting his own digital art and reviewing works by others. He said he can quickly get sucked into that app.

He also said it sometimes feels good to leave his phone behind.

“We were on a boat the other day and I purposely didn’t take my phone with me," he said. “It was a pretty good day."


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