Teens Breaking the Digital Divide with Grandparents

Jan 16, 2017

I distinctly remember when my dad bought our family’s first home computer -- a Commodore 64 in 1984 -- how exciting this strange and wonderful piece of technology was. Back then, my father showed me how to load games, which I played with a joystick, by inserting game cassette tapes into the attached player.

The wait was agonizing, often fifteen minutes or more for a single game to load, and even worse were involved games, requiring you to flip the cassette tape over to load the second side. Floppy disks came along soon after, making things a bit faster, and again, my father instructed me through that learning curve as well.

The computer excitement died down in my house, our Commodore 64 collected dust, and I went off to college. During a semester off, I saved to purchase my own PC, and eagerly loaded America Online to take advantage of chat groups when I wasn’t writing papers. My parents were intrigued, and bought the same HP computer as mine not too long after my purchase.

This time, it was me showing my parents how to use Microsoft Word and introducing them to the Internet via dial-up service. Somewhere in those fifteen years or so, I’d far surpassed my parents’ computer skills, and the student became the teacher.

A Change In Pace

Despite coaxing, and promises of hand-holding, my grandmother refused to learn how to use a computer. I suppose it wasn’t a big deal because her friends were still handwriting letters, and if my grandmother wanted something that was sold online, she had one of my parents purchase it for her. Today, however, our marketplace is increasingly online, and so much communication occurs online -- seniors are almost forced to learn...or be left out.

When sisters Macaulee and Kascha Cassaday developed a high school project together in 2009, they had no idea that they were starting a larger movement to bridge the digital gap between teens and senior citizens, and inspiring a documentary about their efforts.

After teaching their own grandparents to use email, Facebook and Skype, and experience a greater level of connectedness, they decided to create a program to help other seniors develop Internet skills. Cyber-Seniors began small, with the Cassaday sisters developing a training manual and recruiting friends to teach computer skills to seniors at a retirement home twice a week.

Cyber Seniors

 

To get a better feel for the program, I watched the documentary, Cyber Seniors, and came away with the fact that almost all of the seniors featured seemed absolutely delighted by being able to connect with friends, family, and even strangers, online. I was also struck by the amount of patience the teen mentors had with the seniors, something that, admittedly, surprised me, given how the Internet has taken away much of the wait time we encounter in life. With mentors ages 15-20, and students aged 77-93, the inaugural Cyber-Seniors program taught everyone involved.

A final interview with teen mentor, Max, does a wonderful job summarizing the last twenty years or so of technology:

Interviewer: After [participating in Cyber Seniors], do you think there’s a generation gap? Max: Of course. The biggest one, I think, ever, actually. I don’t think there’ll ever be another jump like this. We lost human connection in one sense, be we’ve kind of made up for it with technology.

Ironically, the Cyber Seniors program is much greater than teaching seniors computer skills, it’s giving them an opportunity to connect with the youth of today; face-to-face, meaningful connection in the way they’re used to experiencing interpersonal relationships.

Perhaps the most endearing part of the Cyber Seniors documentary is how a friendly competition pushed the seniors to expand their Internet skills to YouTube. Cyber Seniors has a YouTube channel, so you can check out video tutorials, or short snippets of seniors ‘upping’ their social media game, like the one above: