SHANGHAI — At nearly 70 years of age, Zheng is once more facing one of the inconveniences of old age.
The word “Reward!” is flashing on his phone in eye-catching red text. It baffles Zheng. A minute earlier, he had carefully traced his finger across the screen to handwrite the phrase, “How to take a screenshot on a phone,” using the internet-searching skills he had just learned. But the ad saying “Reward!,” filling his screen for reasons he cannot figure out, has stopped him in his tracks.
“Is it asking me to reward people who answer my question? Or is it giving me a reward? A reward for what?” he asks.
According to the 47th China Statistical Report on Internet Development released by the China Internet Network Information Center, a government agency, the proportion of internet users aged 50 and over was 26.3%, or 260 million, as of December 2020.
The elderly in China began to learn the basics of calling and texting on their cellphones years ago. But nowadays, these rudimentary skills are no longer enough. Not only have smartphones become evermore complex, everyday Chinese life relies increasingly on all manner of apps — from taking public transport to ordering food.
More and more older people are turning into “digital refugees.” Even those who try their best to learn, like Zheng, are often overwhelmed by their devices, confused by misinformation, and even targeted by scammers.
Volunteer Cai Yijun teaches a senior how to use his phone, in Shanghai, November 2020. Courtesy of Shanghai Normal University’s “Smart Elderly” program
Mobile phone classes
At the West Zhijiang Road Elderly Service Center in Shanghai’s Jing’an District, a university student stands at the front of a classroom and addresses a gaggle of people in their 60s and 70s. They stare intently at the mobile phone in her hand, afraid to avert their gaze for even a second.
Cai Yijun is an undergraduate student at Shanghai Normal University as well as the director of the school’s “Smart Elderly” program. The project, founded by a group of college students in 2014, provides intensive training in smartphone skills for elderly people. According to Cai, the university helped set up more than 30 “Smart Elderly” locations in various districts across Shanghai which have taught a combined total of 100,000 students.
“The difficulties that the elderly encounter are not as complicated as we think,” Cai says. “Some things that we consider intuitive are a mystery to them.” She recalls that, during a lesson on “how to power off your phone,” an elderly student eagerly rushed forward to demonstrate what they had just learned. But the student just pressed the lock button to switch off the screen, thinking that this turned the phone off.
Zheng is regarded as a “star student” by his classmates because only he knows how to use his phone to set music to a photo album. But even he has trouble wrapping his head around certain things. He often puts his poor cell reception down to his carrier’s app being pushed to the background. “If too many people are using the app, it’ll make you wait in line, right?”
To confirm his suspicions, Zheng visited his carrier’s local outlet, only to be met by a staff member who wasn’t too keen on educating him. He was simply told “It’ll get better in a few days” and sent swiftly on his way to ponder the question alone at home.
Zheng immediately signed up when someone shared the “Smart Elderly” program in a neighborhood chat group on social app WeChat. The program dispelled all his worries and doubts. He learned that his carrier’s app merely serves to pay phone bills and has nothing to do with the phone signal. “The teacher here is pretty good,” he says. “She takes your hand and instructs you personally until you’re certain you understand.”
The young teachers offer six main classes — Introduction, Communication, Everyday Life, Reading, Leisure, and Fraud Prevention — as well as two electives: Payment, and Taking and Editing Photos.
As one student puts it: “By learning to use a smartphone, you can open a line of communication with the young members of your family.” In one class on photo editing, it took students an entire afternoon to learn how to download the app and how to add borders and stickers to pictures. In the next session, an elderly man excitedly told the teacher that he now had a common interest with his granddaughter. When he opened a picture app and took selfies with her after class, the granddaughter exclaimed in surprise, “How did my grandpa become so fashionable?!”
After nine to 10 hours of “Smart Elderly” classes, students can receive a certificate of completion. Graduates who cannot remember parts of the curriculum are free to return to the classroom whenever they like.
However, when school is not in session, the elderly still have trouble finding answers to their questions.
Seeing a business opportunity in the needs of this vulnerable community, many organizations have developed similar classes with varying quality. Gu, 75, says that she once paid 30 yuan ($4.50) for an in-person smartphone class. She and other students had only attended a couple of sessions before their teacher unexpectedly resigned. The replacement teacher frequently lost their temper when responding to questions. “I hardly learned anything and never got a refund!” Gu says.
A volunteer teaches the elderly how to take photos with their smartphones, in Shanghai, Jan. 6, 2021. Courtesy of Shanghai Normal University’s “Smart Elderly” program
Professor Zhou Yuqiong of Shenzhen University has specifically researched the phenomenon of “technological education as a form of filial piety,” and she has also organized and participated in similar smartphone classes for years. These in-person classes, she has concluded, are only effective to complement other forms of learning. The fundamental thing, according to her, is for families to assume a sense of responsibility.
“This problem can only be resolved in the home,” Zhou says. While community classes should be encouraged, Zhou finds this form of intensive, passive learning too far removed from real-world situations. Only when the elderly can receive prompt assistance with their phones at home can there truly be a sustainable and effective form of “technological filial piety.”
But one obstacle to digital literacy that elderly people face — yet don’t feel at ease speaking up about — is a lack of “teachers” in the home.
Yang, 72, likes listening to music, but there are only four songs saved on his phone. The two he listens to most, “The Shepherd of Koktokay” and “The Moon Reflected in the Second Spring,” are recordings of recordings from other devices rather than files downloaded from online platforms. “My children have taught me before, but I forget soon after, and then they get impatient when I ask them again,” he says.
It was only a few months ago, when he knocked on the door of his college student neighbor to ask for help, that Yang was able to download two more songs. But it wasn’t long before he forgot how to find more music, so he has no choice but to listen to the same four songs on repeat. “I don’t want to be a nuisance and ask again. I still hope that someone at home will teach me,” Yang says.
Zhou’s call for “technological filial piety” in the home is also based on realities in Chinese society, she says: “In the West, people may seek social mechanisms to help resolve family affairs. Although we have also made a lot of efforts to build communities in China, people still feel that some things can only be solved at home due to deep-seated traditional notions of family.”
However, many elderly people find that their requests for assistance at home fall on unlistening ears. Interviewees have a lot of pent up feelings on the subject: “They say things like, ‘You old fart! Don’t bother trying. You’re too stupid to figure it out!’” or “If I ask him for help, he simply fixes whatever I’m having trouble with and hands the phone back to me without telling me how he did it. The next time I’m having trouble, I don’t know how to do it myself.”
In her research, Zhou discovered that the phenomenon of “third-generation affection” is very much present when it comes to raising elderly digital literacy at home. The middle generation is under immense pressure to support the whole family and is not very good at expressing love for their parents, whereas the younger generation tends to have more patient teachers. “Technological instruction is only the surface — on a deeper level, it’s about communicating familial affection,” she says.
Qiang Chen/E+/People Visual
The digital threshold
Eleven years after retiring from his factory job, Yang made friends with a bunch of Chinese chess players.
However, in their group chat, there’s no mention of chess maneuvers — only an endless stream of articles peddling dubious health advice. One day, they’ll warn against eating garlic; the next, against using soap. The claims only become more ludicrous from one article to the next, and yet Yang studies these links conscientiously. “I read each and every one to the end — sometimes, I’ll spend a whole hour just reading them!”
A lot of this information is false, but it is a true reflection of how elderly Chinese people think. As Zhou explains, “There is so much misinformation about health that essentially preys on the elderly’s anxieties about their well-being.”
Moreover, Zhou points to a simple yet often overlooked reason for these articles’ popularity: Older people are prone to believing online rumors because they grew up in the age of traditional media and are used to seeing any media content as authoritative. In their eyes, the author behind these articles must be a qualified professional — otherwise, how would their advice find its way on to their screens?
It reminds Zhou of the headline-grabbing story of a 61-year-old woman surnamed Huang who became infatuated with someone pretending to be famous actor Jin Dong on a video app. “For someone of the generation that grew up watching television, everything they saw had been vetted by editors to be up to standard,” Zhou says. “So Ms. Huang thought that the videos she saw were similar to television, showing real people doing and saying real things.”
The difference between such traditional thinking and the new mindset of the digital age may be the underlying cause of this group’s technological woes. “For older people, mastering the internet means a radical change in the way they think,” Zhou says.
At the entrance to her classroom, Cai, the director of the “Smart Elderly” program, has often seen the faces of those who are afraid to make this change.
One day, Cai saw an elderly man poke his head through the doorway and look around. She invited him to join them — an invitation that he was quick to shut down: “I’m sure I can’t learn!” Although Cai was able to convince him to stay for the beginning of the class, he left within a few minutes.
In this singular interaction is a powerful metaphor: At the threshold of the digital world, there are always older people who walk away in frustration. Where should they go? What do they stand to lose? Can they receive adequate care in a “non-digital” environment?
“We young people can’t look down on the elderly as if this technology is some kind of advanced weapon that we’re bestowing upon them,” Zhou says. “If the elderly can’t keep up with the times, that’s not their fault. We should allow the elderly to choose the lifestyle they’re most comfortable with.”
Xu, a former civil servant, was one of the first Chinese to come into contact with computers. He used desktop PCs in the ’90s for office work and stock trading, and he is using smartphones for bus fares, online payments, and tourist sites today. “I even have smart speakers at home, and you can ask them things like, ‘How do I get to the park?’ or ‘What’s the weather like today?’ It’s so convenient!”
The sports room Xu manages in Shanghai. He now uses WeChat to call his friends and play table tennis. Courtesy of Ma Qinglong
Such elderly people who master new technology have begun to use their smartphones according to their own logic. When Xu leaves the house in the morning, he scans a QR code to unlock a shared bicycle that he takes on a 20- or 30-kilometer ride around his neighborhood. After dinner, he invites friends in his group chat to come and play basketball in his residential courtyard.
In the past, Zhou talked about “teaching the elderly,” but she now prefers to use “teaching in an aging society.” She believes that the term frames the problems faced by the elderly as something that all of society can address together. “When we talk about the problems of the elderly, we are also talking about younger people.”
On Dec. 24, 2020, the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology issued a special action plan to address age-adaptation and barrier-free internet apps. The first phase of this plan will transform 115 websites and 43 apps to help the elderly overcome technological barriers. These applications pertain to areas such as news and information, social communication, as well as shopping, finance, travel, and health care.
A major payment platform has already released a “care version,” featuring large fonts and eye-catching icons, as well as a simpler interface that only includes key functions required by the elderly. However, users need to go through multiple steps each time to access the “care version.” Perhaps as a result, it only has 70,000 or users.
Some applications have used “age adaptation” as a pretext to increase the number of targeted advertisements they show to the elderly, filling their screens with alluring promotions about “gold coins” and “withdrawing funds.” Features and interfaces have been simplified, but the apps pose more traps than ever before.
For elderly people making their first foray into the digital world, every step is full of hesitation and uncertainty.
“We can’t just usher old people to the threshold of this new world without accompanying them on at least part of the journey that follows,” Zhou says.
A version of this article was originally published by The Paper. It has been translated and edited for length and clarity, and is republished here with permission.
Translator: Lewis Wright; editors: Xue Yongle and Kevin Schoenmakers.
(Header image: Elderly people discuss smartphone functions after a lesson on how to use the devices in Jinan, Shandong province, April 2021. People Visual)