senior man using tablet device

What is digital autonomy, and why is it important?

Published: 7 March 2022
  • national
  • 7 March 2022
  • COTA Australia

For older people, “Digital Autonomy” is the ability to retain awareness and control over their own affairs in the digital space. This is a concern because of the perceived lack of digital skills and access among many older people at a time when both business and government are moving more goods and services to an exclusively digital delivery model. The consequence of this is that, without adequate skills and access, older people may be forced to rely on others to manage their interactions in the digital space. This reduces their independence and puts at risk their autonomy, their finances and their health.

Examples of goods and services moving exclusively online abound, and include:

  • Banks closing branches and encouraging online access.

  • Government closing service offices and encouraging secure-ID transactions

  • Social clubs only interacting with their members online

  • Employers refusing to pay cash

  • Stores refusing to accept cash

  • Businesses closing stores and moving exclusively to online shopping and delivery models.

The above examples are all the result of seeking more cost-efficient service models, which as a consequence reduce the ability of older people to deal with people face-to- face or conduct their affairs without resort to the digital domain.

An example would be  Margie who lives in rural NSW. She does not trust the security of online banking. Her bank closed the branch in her town several years ago, so she has been forced to drive to the nearest branch to access her funds. Recently, the bank has conducted further amalgamations, so Margie has had to drive further and further to find an open bank branch.  Recent medical circumstances mean that she is not allowed to drive for six months. Consequently, Margie now depends on her son to access her bank account online because she does not have the skills to do so herself. She is not comfortable having someone else managing her money but has not alternative. Margie has effectively lost her digital autonomy.

As noted earlier, digital autonomy is a function of both skills and access. Access is itself a function of having the required equipment, the networks to access, and the financial resources to make it feasible.