What do the papers say? The role of older adults in 20 years of digital inclusion debate in Dutch and Flemish newspapers

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Cora van Leeuwen
An Jacobs
Ilse Mariën
Anina Vercruyssen


Adoption of digital technology by older adults has become an important topic in academia and the public sphere within the debate on digital inclusion. Likewise, this topic has gained traction in the print media also. This paper assesses the representation of older adults in print media in the past 20 years in The Netherlands and Flanders. A total of 281 articles in the Dutch language were analysed to determine the representation of older adults and their level of agency. We found that they were represented in three manners: a) ambassadors of digital skill acquisition; b) naturally lacking in digital skills; or c) not alone in being helpless. These representations clearly increased during the COVIS-19 crisis. Some representations can be problematic, as the relationship between older adults and digital inclusion is not envisioned positively. Furthermore, they receive no agency to participate actively in the discussion surrounding their own digital inclusion and are too often used as the automatic example of the digitally illiterate – which is not particularly encouraging older adults towards digital skills acquisition.


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Author Biographies

Cora van Leeuwen, imec-SMIT, VUB, Ixelles, Belgium

Cora van Leeuwen (0000-0002-3536-5881)joined imec-SMIT, VUB in 2018 as junior researcher on the H2020 project “ProACT”. In 2020 she became part of the Digital Ageing Consortium as a PhD researcher. This is a joint-PhD between the Vrije Universiteit Brussels (Belgium) and the University of the Western Cape (South Africa). Her research focuses on the role of technology and ageism on the ageing experience of the older adults.


An Jacobs, imec-SMIT, VUB, Ixelles, Belgium

An Jacobs (0000-0001-8058-1455) is a sociologist who joined imec-SMIT, VUB in 2005. Currently she is a part time Associate Professor in the Department of Media and Communication Studies, teaching Interpretative research methods at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB) in Belgium. She is also Principal Investigator at the research centre  SMIT (Studies on Media, Innovation and Technology), leading the research unit “Digital Health and Work”


Ilse Mariën, imec-SMIT, VUB, Ixelles, Belgium

Ilse Mariën(0000-0002-9644-7338) joined the imec-SMIT,VUB research centre in 2007, where she has worked on several research projects related to the social implications and policy aspects of digital media. Ilse is currently part-time Professor in the Department of Media and Communication Studies, teaching several courses in Policy making. She is the Unit Lead for the “Digital Inclusion and Citizen Engagement Unit” and principal investigator on several projects.


Anina Vercruyssen, Centre for Population, Family, and Health (CPFH), University of Antwerp, Antwerp, Belgium

Anina Vercruyssen (0000-0002-6768-2822) is Doctor in Sociology and works as a senior researcher at the Centre for Population, Family, and Health (CPFH) at the University of Antwerp. She is currently research coordinator of SBO-project Digital Ageing. Her interests and expertise lay in family sociology, digital inclusion, and well-being.




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