Impact 2014: Bridging the digital divide between the generations

In Austria, youth are being trained to help older folk understand technology

Mrs T. sounds a bit desperate on the phone.

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"Listen, I was just looking in my thingamajig for the pictures you sent me yesterday - now all of a sudden, they're gone. Did I break something?" she asked her daughter.

The "thingamajig" is an electronic tablet that her daughter gave her some time ago.

The 79-year-old woman can write e-mail to her grandchildren and other relatives, use Google, and store photos sent to her device. Everything else, though, seems rather overwhelming.

Many senior citizens share Mrs T.'s fate - people who until now have not had much to do with digital technology in their life.

"Often, these are just little things which people who didn't grow up with the computer and the Internet are unable to grasp," said Ms Daniela Weinholtz and Mr Kornelius Pesut.

It is something they have seen in their many years as trainers at an "Internet-for-all campus", a training service for users of all ages offered by Austrian telecommunications company A1.

Seeing an even greater demand for affordable one-on-one coaching sessions, especially for people who have no or only limited access to digital media, Ms Weinholtz, 34, a media educator, and Mr Pesut, 31, a media designer, have launched the qualitatszeit, or Quality Time, project.

It promises to accomplish two things at the same time: Reducing the digital divide in the population and creating a bridge between the generations.

Interested young people will be trained as "digital coaches" while gaining professional experience through the project.

"Young people often come with an almost natural understanding of electronic media," said Ms Weinholtz. "They have a knack for these things."

At one- or two-day workshops, the youth will learn to understand their grandparents' generation - for instance, how older people do not have difficulty understanding technology; they just learn at a slower pace.

At the same time, the project will give older persons a different view of young people today - in stark contrast to the one depicting them as a generation often lacking in respect and interest.

The duo see the workshops taking place in a nice, cafe atmosphere where people can learn - and laugh.

The senior citizens can come by when they have questions on laptops, smartphones, digital cameras and other electronic devices, or when they want to get tips on how to put together a digital photo book, or how to Skype with relatives and friends.

Ms Weinholtz and Mr Pesut hope to be able to get their learning workshops up and running in the beginning of next year.

The writer is contributing editor of Austrian daily newspaper Der Standard in Vienna.