This short piece, written by Dr. Wendy Martin, serves as a follow-up to a one day seminar held at Brunel University on October 26, 2018. The seminar was organized by Wendy Martin and Paul Higgs (University College London) and was funded by ACT.
Digital devices, information technologies and mediated systems of communication increasingly shape the social worlds of people in mid to later life. While tired stereotypes of older people as uninterested or unskilled users of digital technologies have waned, concerns over a digital divide remain. The increase in use of digital technologies as people grow older was the focus of the one-day seminar entitled ‘Ageing, the Digital and Everyday Life’ that took place in October 2018 at Brunel University London.
The presenters were an interdisciplinary and international group of academics and researchers from the arts, the social sciences and Science and Technology Studies (STS) whose work focuses on ageing, the digital and everyday life. The seminar provided an opportunity to examine and review the study of ageing, the digital and everyday life from a wide range of perspectives and to critically explore future challenges and possibilities. The seminar was very well attended by academics, doctoral students and the public and as the event was livestreamed there were further questions and dialogue via Twitter. The seminar led to stimulating and engaging debates amongst and between the speakers and audiences and was very positively evaluated.
The presentations are available on YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC8nqSO89lEXivZ_JTuZVhhg/videos?disable_polymer=1
The seminar was organised by Dr Wendy Martin (Brunel University London) and Professor Paul Higgs (University College London) and was funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) international partnership ‘Ageing, Communication, Technologies (ACT): experiencing a digital world in later life’.
ACT is supporting a unique, three-day symposium at Concordia. The symposium will bring together disabled artists from East London and Montreal to co-produce a suite of new digital artworks that explore sensorial relationships to the world through “vibrational” tactility. Learn more about the event here.
On October 23, 2018, Kim Sawchuk, Anne Caines, and Kendra Besanger attended the CRTC’s public hearing. Kim and Anne gave an important testimony to the CRTC commissioners about the impact aggressive, misleading, and abusive sales tactics have on seniors.
Following the testimony, Anne and Kim both gave media interviews.
Here is ACT’s testimony:
CRTC Public Hearing 2018-246
Presenters: Dr. Kim Sawchuk and Anne Caines on behalf of ACT Project, Concordia University
Date: October 23, 2018
KIM: Greetings! My name is Kim Sawchuk, and I am a professor in Communication Studies at Concordia University. I am the Director of Ageing, Communication, Technologies, or ACT, an international research project based at Concordia University. Our team examines what it means to age in a digital world and to develop strategies to rectify digital divides in collaboration with elders.
ANNE: Hello, my name is Anne Caines. I am a Canadian senior and a member of ACT. I also coordinate Respecting Elders: Communities Against Abuse, or RECAA. RECAA works with linguistic and cultural minorities in Montreal and we have been members of ACT since 2013.
On behalf of ACT and the seniors we work with and know, we thank the CRTC for this inquiry. It is imperative to consider how seniors, people with disabilities and those whose first language is neither French nor English are targeted and how their lives are impacted by current sales practices.
KIM: For 15 years, I have been researching the exclusion of Canadians over the age 65 from data gathering practices. As a communications and age studies researcher, I spend time listening to older people and I’m alarmed by what I am hearing.
Five years ago, we were invited to give digital literacy workshops to seniors living in low income apartment buildings in Montreal. While we were showing them how to use email and connect to Wifi, something happened. Participants and their caregivers started bringing their telecom bills and asking: Why has my bill gone up? What is this service? and Why am I paying for this? This past winter—when the issue hit the media— we realized the stories from these low-income seniors were not an anomaly.
The report we submitted to the CRTC draws from individual and group interviews conducted with 53 Canadian seniors from 2017 to 2018. Three quarters of them, 75%, reported experiences of predatory sales practices in the telecommunication industry. The testimonies you will hear from us are from people whose average age is 75.
Seniors spoke of services and devices that were unsuitable, more extensive and more expensive than they required.
ANNE: Is it right for a senior in his 80s who does not own a computer, a tablet or a smartphone to be sold an expensive home Internet plan?
KIM: Seniors reported being lied to.
ANNE: Is it right for an 86-year-old man looking for a landline to be told that his technology is outdated, and then pressured to buy a smartphone that he does not know how to turn on?
KIM: Our participants reported being misled, pressured and lured into contracts under false pretences: three separate but interrelated sales tactics.
Here’s another story we heard: an 82-year old woman was approached by a sales representative at a Bell booth in Montreal. “I am having a terrible day” she was told, and “I need “just one more signature” to end my shift…” He assured this woman that a signature was not a contractual obligation, but simply confirmation of their conversation. Within a few days, Bell called this 82 year-old woman to secure payment. She had been manipulated by someone she thought she could trust.
ANNE: Is it right to deliberately trick seniors to meet sales quotas?
Seniors are not all the same. According to Statistics Canada, only 43% of Canadian seniors over the age of 75 are regular users of the Internet.
Our research indicates that seniors’ digital skills, and their ability to deal with high pressure sales people, are connected to levels of income and education.
ANNE: I am fortunate to be educated and relatively tech-savvy. Still, I need to be on guard when it comes to interacting with this industry.
Why should I? I am dealing with well-established Canadian companies. I am not walking through a dark, isolated alley at night. I am trying to make sure I won’t be ripped off by a deal too good to be true.
Many seniors do not have adequate digital opportunities or experience. Many of us do not have family, friends, or social workers to help us understand contracts, or make sure we are getting the services we need at a fair price.
What happens to those seniors who do not have family or friends?
Remember, many of us first acquired telecom services in Canada at a time when prices were fixed and we knew governments had an interest in ensuring that all Canadians could afford communications.
Many of us feel that we are being targeted because of our age, that you are preying upon us.
Many seniors I know are hesitant to adjust their packages because they know any conversation with a sales agent may make them vulnerable to being taken advantage of, again, by agents who are under pressure to sell.
Seniors living on or below the poverty can find themselves in a double bind: they are the most in need of fair prices and yet they can become the most vulnerable. A $20 increase in a telecom bill can mean no groceries that week.
Telecom services are not a luxury. Phones, whether landline or wireless, are a life necessity.
The Internet is not a luxury. It is the way we participate in politics, get information, and stay connected. They are an essential part of citizenship in the digital age.
We need this industry regulated, including the third-party companies that they contract, and we need fair prices.
KIM: These are a sampling of the stories that our research team heard; yet, Telus dismissed our report because it relied on interviews with 53 seniors. “Only 53 seniors” they wrote.
This criticism is a scandalous dismissal of the voices of these people.
It is a misunderstanding of what qualitative research does, who we reach out to, and the significance of the data that we gather. We go to libraries, community centres, legions, and malls: the places frequented by low-income seniors, cultural minorities, those with low digital skills, and those over the of age of 75.
These are the seniors who did not hear about this consultation, who will not show up in the data you collect and who may have given up on filling out your survey. Remember, only 43% of Canadian seniors over the age of 75 use the internet on a regular basis and the CRTC’s consultation was primarily online with a site that was difficult to navigate. This makes digital first, seniors last.
When we interviewed seniors they were not quick to disclose accounts of aggressive sales tactics, immediately. But when we ask for the story behind the number, when trust was built, we heard an outpouring of the emotional stress and financial duress endured as a result of interactions with companies like Bell, Telus, Videotron, and others. We heard the distress of a woman fighting to get out of her contract, after her husband had died. These stories are not readily captured by mass surveys or online consultations.
So, when we report that 75% of the 53 seniors we listened to have been subjected to predatory sales practices by the telecom industry, we are fully confident that our findings are pointing to a very serious problem in Canada that is under-reported – but which is also unacceptable. 75% of 53 is 40 people too many. 1 mislead elder, is 1 too many.
ANNE: In the work that I do with seniors, we say that elder abuse is the most hidden form of violence. We know that it’s hard to talk about. In most places, it indicates the tip of the iceberg. No one wants to admit to being abused.
Lying to seniors or pressuring seniors to get them to enter contracts or to purchase services they don’t need is a form of elder abuse.
Taking advantage of seniors because they don’t have the same digital knowledge as younger Canadians do is a form of elder abuse.
KIM: If you are not hearing from seniors about this topic, it is important to consider why.
How many of you want to admit you’ve been pressured into buying something you didn’t need?
How many of you want to openly admit you don’t understand complicated or technical language?
How many of you want to admit you need help? Or feel to embarrassed to ask for it? Ashamed that you have been tricked?
We wish this was just a few bad apples but this is an issue of companies rewarding the mistreatment of elders by training employees to adopt high pressure sales practices.This is what we would define as a systemic problem.
I am certain we can do better. We have to: for seniors and for our younger generations.
We want the CRTC to intervene to fix this broken system. Our report makes seven recommendations and three are absolutely urgent.
First, give customers a 60 day—no penalty—grace period to back out of a contract;
Second, ban commissions-only sales practices;
Third, levy fines on telecom companies who are found to be using aggressive or misleading sales practices.
ANNE: This would be a good start to making a difference in the lives of seniors.
We hope you’ll take our accounts of seniors’ experiences and our recommendations seriously.
KIM: Thank you.
The testimony was written collaboratively by Sawchuk, Caines, Besanger, and Constance Lafontaine. It follows a submission written by Sawchuk, Lafontaine, and Besanger.
On Friday, October 26th 2018 join us for the live stream of Ageing, the Digital and Everyday Life, a one day seminar held at Brunel University London in the United Kingdom. The stream begins at 10:30am BST.
The speakers are an interdisciplinary group of academics and researchers from the arts, the social sciences and Science and Technology Studies (STS) and include both members of the ACT partnership, and wider international colleagues whose work focuses on ageing, the digital and everyday life. The seminar will provide an opportunity to examine and review the study of ageing, the digital and everyday life from a wide range of perspectives and to critically explore future challenges and possibilities. The seminar is organized by Wendy Martin (Brunel University London) and Paul Higgs (University College London).
A full programme is available here.
Kim Sawchuk, Anne Caines, and Kendra Besanger will travel to Gatineau, QC to participate in the CRTC’s public hearing on Canadian telecommunication companies’ aggressive and misleading sales tactics.
ACT will present findings from their recent report, Experiences of Older Adults with Abusive Sales Practices of Canadian Telecommunication Providers.
Read more about the full intervention here.
We are happy to share a list of ACT network members’ publications that have been released within the past few months.
May Chazan, Melissa Baldwin, and Patricia Evans (2018) – Unsettling Activisms: Critical Interventions on Aging, Gender, and Social Change. Women’s Press/ Canadian Scholars’ Press. The book launch will take place on October 27 in Peterborough, ON.
Stephen Katz (2018)- “The Greatest Band that Never Was: Music, Memory and Boomer Biography” in Popular Music and Society.
Jane Traies (2018) – Now You See Me. Tollington Press
Lisa Carver (2018) – “Why life insurance companies want your Fitbit data” in the Conversation Canada.
Loredana Ivan, Ioana Schiau and Corina Buzoianu (2018) – “The Use of a Drawing Tool to Assess the Implicit Ageism of Students” in Slovensky Narodopis
Oded Zafrani and Galit Nimrod (2018) – “Towards a Holistic Approach to Studying Human-Robot Interaction in Later Life” in The Gerontologist.
In their recently released book, Unsettling Activisms: Critical Interventions on Aging, Gender, and Social Change (Women’s Press, 2018), editors May Chazan, Melissa Baldwin, and Patricia Evans present compelling reasons why our common perceptions of activisms and activists need to be expanded; specifically, expanded to include the work of older women activists.
ACT research assistant, Nora Lamontagne’s article, “Simpler Than Ever? Online Grocery Shopping With Seniors” was published in the September issue of Milieux’s Pause Button, on online publication about technology and culture.
Each year in July, GUSEGG provides a unique opportunity for professors and students from around the world to explore new ideas and dive into challenging topics. It is intensive, personal, intimate, and distinct from a typical university setting. Students and professors learn together from early morning until late evening in a setting where critical thought and challenging conversations extend beyond the walls of the classroom.