MIDDLE-AGED CYBERCRAZY -- Older Women and the Internet
by Debra Littlejohn Shinder
Modern high-tech equipment, cyberpunk movies, virtual reality games -- if you listen to all the media hype, you might think the present popularity of computers and the Internet is all "kid's stuff." The generation now emerging into adolescence was born during the dawn of the information age, and it sometimes seems as if its members all grew up clicking mice and speaking exotic languages like C++ and Java.
But is the cyberspace community inhabited only -- or even mostly -- by pimply-faced youngsters who boldly go where their parents have never gone before, or is this brave new world more diverse than the traditional media lead us to believe?
"One of the things I like about the online world," says Christine, a forty-five-year-old woman I met on an online mailing list, "is that I'm not judged on the basis of my looks or my gender or my age. I think this medium is perfect for us 'oldies but goodies' who still love learning new things. And there are a lot of us out here, regardless of the image of net users portrayed by TV and newspapers."
The popular misconception is that folks over 40 -- especially females -- are "old dogs" who have difficulty learning new tricks. Computers are new-fangled devices best left to the younger generation, say the proponents of this theory.
Some women in their forties and fifties and beyond have bought into that idea. Others laugh at the notion that they're any less capable of mastering the machines than the whiz kids are.
"My grandkids think it's neat that Grandma sends them e-mail instead of lilac-scented letters that take the postal service days to deliver," says Barbara, at sixty-two, the proud owner of her first computer.
"They use Macs at school and they have a PC at home, but they always want to come to my house and play with mine. It's got all the bells and whistles and a faster processor. They think it's great, but in a weird way -- sort of like if their grandmother went out and bought a Ferrari."
Older women, with the advantage of well-established credit and healthy savings accounts, may in many cases be better able to afford the latest and greatest. But why would Grandma need a fancy sports car? And what does she do with that souped-up, loaded-down, top-of-the-line electronic brain?
"Anything and everything the youngsters can do with it," smiles Barb. "I know a lot of women my age who are afraid of computers -- afraid they'll break it if they push the wrong button. But that's just because they haven't used them. I learned this the same way I learn anything else: I got a few good books, and read through them, and then I sat down and practiced with it until I felt comfortable. Now I can fix most of the problems that come up with the software. And I can even open up the case and fiddle with the hardware. I installed more RAM and recently I put in a new hard drive," she says proudly. "The computer shop wanted $45 an hour to do it, but it seemed pretty simple, so I did it myself."
Some women use the computer and the Internet primarily as a convenient means of keeping in touch with family and friends via electronic mail. But others surf the web for new shareware and information, right alongside their younger counterparts. A friend told me recently that when her aging father was diagnosed with a serious disease, her mom immediately got on the net to search for as much info as possible about the condition. She came up with pages and pages of encouraging news about recent research from reputable medical sites, and when she confronted their small-town doctor with it, he consulted some of the authorities whose published papers were referenced.
Her actions resulted in a treatment plan for her husband that otherwise might not have been prescribed. They credit the easy availability of such information with possibly prolonging his life.
The Internet can also be an important source of entertainment and socialization for lonely older women who, due to health problems or other circumstances, can't get out and about among people as much as they'd like.
Jan, a recent widow who has heart problems, bought a computer for her thirteen-year-old grandson to use when he visited for the summer. He persuaded her to open an Internet account so they could exchange e-mail when he went back home in the fall.
Jan discovered a whole new world when she ventured onto the net. She found a mailing list devoted to gardening, her favorite hobby. Through a webpage, she stumbled across a group in which she could discuss her other major interest, genealogy. Unable to attend the church socials she had always enjoyed, she learned to use the "chat" software to join a live online Bible study group.
"This is wonderful for someone my age," she told me. "I don't have the energy or the inclination to get out and meet new people. Frankly, you don't know who you can trust these days. But I get lonely for somebody to talk to, since my husband died. Over the Internet, I can talk to folks when I feel like it, and if I don't, I just don't turn the computer on. And I don't even have to tell them my last name, or anything, so I don't worry about them hunting me down or trying to pull some scam on me."
Jan is not the only older woman who is enthusiastic about the unique combination of intimacy and anonymity of the online world. The net may be the latest craze, but unlike other fads, it's one that spans all generations. Cyberspace is much more than a haven for hackers and teenaged gamesters. It's a place with room for all kinds, and all ages. The Internet has a lot to offer older women, and each day more and more of them embrace the new technology and find it a valuable addition to their lives.
DEB SHINDER is a writer, editor, and police academy instructor who has been heavily involved in the Internet for the past four years. She owns an Internet discussion list and provides computer consulting and training services in her "spare" time.