Digital generation gap: China tells companies to make their sites and apps more ‘elderly friendly’ as online population balloons

Iris Deng
·4-min read

The Chinese government has asked the country’s websites and mobile apps to redesign their pages and interfaces so they are easier for the elderly to navigate in Beijing’s latest push to narrow the digital gap among a rapidly ageing population.

China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT) published guidelines on Monday asking web pages and mobile apps to carry out “elderly friendliness modifications” before the end of September – including the use of bigger fonts and a ban on pop-up ads – after which compliant sites will receive an official “web accessibility” label valid for two years.

Satisfactory modifications can even earn points in China’s state-run business credit system that could open the way to bonuses ranging from government subsidies to lower bank loan rates, the ministry said.

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The recommended improvements in elderly-friendly designs include bigger and adjustable text sizes, text-to-speech, verifications in audio form, as well as a ban on plug-in ad links or floating ads, according to the ministry. Websites and apps are also told to omit buttons that entice elderly users to make downloads or payments and to prominently display on homepages a button to activate “elderly mode”.

The latest guidelines are part of a campaign launched by MIIT in January to improve internet accessibility for the elderly and disadvantaged, which targeted a first batch of 43 apps and 115 websites, including the all-purpose social media app WeChat, e-commerce platforms Taobao and, as well as online services by government departments and news organisations.

The campaign comes amid a surge in senior citizen use of the internet, which has highlighted the fact that the elderly are often less able to navigate the online world compared with the younger generations. The number of digital users in China aged above 60 increased by 36 million from March to June last year, partly due to Covid-19, according to data issued by the China Internet Network Information Centre in September.

More than 100 million Chinese consumers aged above 50 use the mobile internet, spending an average of 136 hours a month on their smart devices, QuestMobile said in a July survey. By 2030, about a quarter of China’s total population will be older than 60, according to government estimates.

Mrs Chen, a 72-year-old Beijing resident who declined to give her full name, finds it stressful to run errands in the digital age. She is typical of the large group of senior citizens who struggle with technology and increasingly feel left behind.

“I feel nervous when I need to visit banks, hospitals and airports because I don’t know how to use the ATMs or make an appointment with the machines they want us to use,” said Chen, who owns a smartphone but still prefers to use cash when paying at a supermarket, a habit that sometimes elicits impatient looks from cashiers.

Chen has also given up on using many of the mobile apps that keep asking her to agree to various terms that she does not understand, in fear of pressing the wrong button or getting scammed. “For me, the most important thing about these technologies is not the font size. I don’t even know where to start,” she said.

In a push to include the elderly population in the digital world, the State Council in November issued policies intended to help them make better use of smart technology to access medical treatment, recreational activities and public services, building on the work of community centres that have for years tried to keep senior citizens up to date with technology.

The moves are also seen as helping the ruling Chinese Communist Party, as those aged 61 or more account for about one-third of party membership. A report published on Chinese Social Science Net, a website under the China Academy of Social Science, said many elderly communists feel left behind by big-data technology.

“Elderly party members are irreplaceable in propaganda and as role models. Party-building would be incomplete if this group is omitted,” said the report, authored by the Academy of Marxism at East China University of Political Science and Law. “And elderly members might need more care from the party organisation due to physical and economic reasons.”

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