U of T news
  • Follow U of T News

Helping seniors feel safer online: new research from University of Toronto

“If we make the Internet friendlier for seniors, we could make it friendlier for everyone”

Cosmin Munteanu says money lost by seniors to online scams is consistent with losses by the general population “but seniors see themselves as targets, and this makes them marginalized in online activities.”

The University of Toronto's Cosmin Munteanu wants to help seniors feel safer and more confident when using the Internet.  

“Seniors are afraid of being vulnerable to scams,” Munteanu says. “This prevents them from accessing enhanced services from trusted providers, such as banks or health care services, which is an important part of maintaining their independence.” 

An assistant professor with the U of T Mississauga’s Institution for Communication, Culture, Information and Technology department, Munteanu examines the barriers older adults face in adopting online technology. As co-director of the Technologies for Aging Gracefully lab (TAG lab) on the downtown Toronto campus, he investigates how aging adults access and use technology, and how technologies might be adapted to better suit their needs.

Munteanu recently won funding to study how seniors are using web services, and what barriers they face in getting online to manage critical information like health and financial services.

“We realized that for older adults, fear related to safety around technology was a barrier to adoption,” Munteanu says. “We found that seniors demonstrate a reluctance to participate in online activities because there’s a notion that their online safety will be exposed.”

“In Canada and the U.S., seniors are very active online users, but there’s still a huge digital divide,” he says. “They have access to the Internet, they use it, but they don’t take full advantage of what’s available to them.” Munteanu says that social isolation caused by lack of digital participation could affect 40 to 50 per cent of seniors.

“There’s an inherent fear that this isn’t a safe place for them to manage this information or activity.”

Current research into senior use of technology doesn’t cover perceptions of safety, Munteanu notes. “The statistics tell us that $10-million is lost every year by Canadian seniors in online scams. This is in proportion with the general population. But seniors see themselves as targets, and this makes them marginalized in online activities.”

Personal services are increasingly managed online, including tasks such as filing taxes, accessing investment statements and renewing library books and drug prescriptions. “It becomes even more important to make the online world a safe and navigable space for senior users,” Munteanu says.

“We’re focusing on medical information, personal information (such as pensions), and some online transactions. We’re looking at what kind of authentication would be perceived as the most trustworthy way to access those services, including biometric authentication, traditional login screens and third-party providers.”

Munteanu hopes the findings will result in better, safer ways to get seniors online, such as a senior-friendly web browser, or the development of a third-party service manager. “If we make the Internet friendlier for seniors, we could make it friendlier for everyone.”

Munteanu’s research is funded through UTM’s Research and Scholarly Activity Fund. He is cross appointed to the Faculty of Information and the department of computer science at U of T.

February 25, 2016