Fascinating details of internet use among the over 50s have emerged, including how they access the internet, what they’re listening to online, and even how they arrange dances in public squares. This growing demographic has some serious skills but also faces unique problems ranging from fraudsters to simply topping up their phones.

Tencent has co-produced a report and on how the elderly use the internet in China as part of a collaboration with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) on internet use in general. The research was conducted by analyzing the data of elderly smartphone users and their browser history, plus surveys of WeChat users in eight cities and focus groups held in four. The survey sample size was 800 with 62.3% aged 50-60, 29.9% aged 61-70 and 7.9% aged 71-80.

Tencent old people online
What Chinese people over 50 do online: WeChat, news, and shopping. (Image credit: Tencent Research)

What can 50 to 80-year-olds do on their phones?

The one skill that almost all had, at 98.5% of those surveyed, was chatting on WeChat. The second most common skill, funnily enough, is sending and receiving hongbao, with 83% able to handle the digital version of the red envelope tradition. 81.8% can send stickers and photos and 68.9% can take photos and videos within WeChat.

Various WeChat skills were the most common, followed by 75.8% being able to read the news on the internet or through WeChat. When it comes to actively searching for news the figure drops to 56.6%. The next most common skill was being able to watch videos online (59.3%), making mobile payments (51.5%) and topping up their phone credit (40.6%). Other phone skills with a lower uptake but worth mentioning are making hospital appointments (12.1%), hailing cars (25.8%), and compiling photo albums.

What are they reading online?

According to the browser data of 35.8 million people over 50, their favorite category is a loose term meaning self-help and feel good articles (literally 心灵鸡汤 xinling jitang, the Chinese translation for Chicken Soup for the Soul-style content). 76.5% of this age group reads these kinds of articles compared to 53.2% of the general population. Comedy was next at 72%, current affairs at 67%, health at 66.9% then love and sex at 60.7%. The over 50s tenth favorite category is technology at 49.8% compared to 31.9% in the general population.

Of the 21,000 people aged 50 to 80 registered on Ximalaya FM, 32.3% listen to audio books. The next most popular category at 9.1% is education, with music third at 8.8% of users.

Size matters

When it comes to choosing smartphone specs, large screens are what 65.8% of the group wanted. The next must-have was plenty of storage with 37.4% requiring a large memory. Only 14.3% were concerned about how fashionable the handset was. In terms of turnoffs, after small screens the most disliked feature was a slow operating system, according to 42.7% of those asked.

Meetup metadata

WeChat is the most used method of communication for arranging hobbies and activities among the over 50s. For all categories—square dancing, exercise, and health, singing, travel and neighborhood activities—WeChat was the most common, followed by phone calls then face-to-face. Over 80% use WeChat to arrange getting together to sing.

Channels for arranging Tencent Older Internet copy
Different channels of communication for arranging (l-r) public square dancing, exercise and health, and travel activities. Green for WeChat, yellow for the phone. (Image credit: Tencent Research)

Online fraud

Older internet users are more likely than other age groups to be the victims of online fraud. 67.3% said they had been the victim of some sort of fraud, with 60.3% of those involving red envelopes, 52.35% involving free data and 48.6% offering discounts. According to the report, 13.5% reported they had been the victim of fraud when using mobile payments.

“Online society emphasizes inequality to an extent… People can become highly influential, like on traditional TV stations,” said Zhang Yi director of the National Academy of Social Development Strategy under CASS. He believes the rural elderly are at even more of a disadvantage, “And those most conned are the elderly”.

Du Peng, vice president of Renmin University of China came at the issue from another angle: “It’s not about the number of cheats online, but in life.”

Spending Tencent Older Internet copy
51.5% of China’s over 50s make payments on their mobiles, 32.6% do online shopping, 22.1% pay bills online. (Image credit: Tencent Research)

Deng Xiaoping had planned for China to get rich before it gets old. But China’s population is aging even more rapidly than expected and could be the first country in the world to age before developing (although this is an inexact measure). The over-50s have been increasing as a proportion of all social media users in China, from under 5% in 2013 to over 8% in 2016 according to the report, and 10.6% of all web users in general by 2017.

At the launch event held at the CASS in Beijing on March 19, a consortium of nine bodies including Tencent Research, CASS, Tencent Browser, the Guangming Daily and Tsinghua University signed a pledge to make using the internet safer and more accessible for all, including families and the elderly.

“Old people on the internet can be considered a disadvantaged group, and ever more so. If advances carry on at increasing pace, the elderly are going to be ever more left behind by technology,” said Zhang Yi of CASS. However, he remained upbeat about the challenge: “Publishing this book is like the first step of the Ten Thousand Li Great Wall. The route could be even longer, with more work to do.”

Frank Hersey is a Beijing-based tech reporter who's been coming to China since 2001. He tries to go beyond the headlines to explain the context and impact of developments in China's tech sector. Get in...

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