Beyond the Screen: Confronting Detroit’s Senior Digital Divide in the Social Media Age

In 2024, it’s no secret that social media is the lifeblood of our economy and a cornerstone of daily life, influencing everything from politics and culture to news and beyond. No matter your age—whether you’re 2 or 92—you know it’s the driving force behind how we connect and communicate today. But with this pervasive influence comes a critical need for reliable internet access. And even with Wi-Fi in hand, many still face barriers when it comes to navigating the digital landscape, particularly social media.  

This gap—the inability to effectively engage with the very tool shaping our modern world—is a concrete example of the digital divide. And who ends up getting left behind? Our elderly community, who are often perceived as “too far removed” from the tech-savvy realm of social media. But this perception is not just misguided; it’s a disservice. We must acknowledge this disparity and ensure that no one is excluded from the digital revolution, especially those who’ve paved the way for us. By bridging this divide, we can empower every generation to stay connected, informed, and included.  

A task that Detroit native and social media director, Ethan Lloyd has taken under his wing, “After my grandmother passed away, something told me to check my email. I saw hundreds of emails from my grandmother! She was trying to connect with me, but I was too busy focusing on everyday life. I’ve reached 50 million people on social media but failed to reach the person that mattered the most to me. This is why I am teaching seniors how to use social media. To close the digital communication divide within the family, between generations.”  

Lloyd and many alike, understand that the digital divide has long been a critical issue across the United States, affecting economic opportunities, educational outcomes, and access to healthcare. In Detroit, a city with a significant Black population, this divide is not just a gap—it’s a chasm. It has come to a point in time where we can no longer ignore the need to explore the profound disparities that exist within Black communities in Detroit, examining the root causes, the impact on residents, and the ongoing efforts to bridge this gap.  

According to the Pew Research Center, the digital divide between Black and white Americans is especially stark when it comes to traditional measures of internet and broadband adoption, particularly among certain demographic subgroups. Older Black individuals and those who haven’t attended college are significantly less likely to go online or have broadband at home compared to their white counterparts with similar backgrounds. Black seniors, in particular, face striking disparities: only 45% are internet users, and just 30% have broadband at home, compared to 63% and 51%, respectively, for white seniors.  

Interestingly, while internet and broadband adoption lag among Black seniors, cellphone ownership levels are nearly identical between Black and white Americans. A staggering 92% of Black adults own a cellphone, and 56% own a smartphone. Cell phone usage remains more prevalent than internet use among older Black individuals, with 77% of Black seniors owning a basic cell phone, while only 18% own smartphones.  

Overall, 72% of all Black people have either a broadband connection or a smartphone, and among those aged 18-29, this number skyrockets to 98%. These statistics highlight a crucial disconnect: while mobile connectivity is widespread, particularly among younger generations, older Black adults are still being left behind in broadband access and digital literacy. This underscores the urgent need to close this gap, ensuring that all generations can tap into the digital resources that shape today’s world.  

Here in Detroit, there’s a real chance to close the senior digital divide. Alongside Lloyd, organizations like Connect 313, powered by the Rocket Community Fund, are dedicated to making sure every Detroiter, especially senior citizens, has access to the right devices, stable internet connections, technical support, and digital resources needed to enhance learning, secure resources, and improve overall well-being.  

“When COVID-19 hit, I realized that my senior citizens, the grandparents, didn’t have connectivity to technology to help their grandchildren with homework,” 2023 chair of Connect 313’s Policy, Advocacy, and Ecosystems Committee, Phyllis Edwards shared. “I also knew that online access, and the right tech devices for telehealth, were not an option and that social isolation was going to be an issue.”  

Edwards makes no excuses about her tech prowess. Sure, she knows her way around an electronic device and navigates the internet with ease, but she wouldn’t necessarily call herself “tech-savvy.” That’s precisely why she aligned herself with Connect 313.  

Edwards brings a lifetime of activism, championing the voices of those often left out of the conversation. For Edwards, creating a fully inclusive digital ecosystem is critical and needs to be a cornerstone of long-term planning. Her vision includes a system that embraces people with physical challenges, seniors lacking technology, and individuals who have devices but aren’t sure how to use them. She aims to provide access, connectivity, and the training necessary to ensure everyone can fully participate and thrive in the digital age.  

Knowing that our world is driven by the rapid pace of technological evolution, it’s crucial that our elders aren’t left on the sidelines. “We want to make sure that as we move forward in this new digital world, we don’t leave people behind as they have been left behind before,” said Edwards. “It’s simply too important that we bring everyone along.”  

 Access to the internet and the skills to utilize it can help bridge the generational divide, empowering older adults to connect, communicate, and thrive in ways they might have once thought unimaginable. Social media can be a lifeline, keeping elders in the loop with family members and cherished friends across the globe. And it does more than foster connections—it provides access to invaluable information about health programs, economic resources, and other tools that help them maintain independence and well-being.  

Lloyd has developed a comprehensive curriculum that empowers seniors to set up their own social media profiles and independently make their first post. His Social Media Guide walks them through creating accounts on Instagram, Facebook, X (formerly Twitter), and TikTok. Once their profiles are ready, he introduces them to the various types of posts that can be shared on each platform, providing step-by-step guidance as they craft their first post.  

“Beyond just posting updates, my mission is to empower them to stay informed about current events, community resources, and trends that shape their daily lives,” shared Lloyd. “Connecting them with family members across platforms ensures they’re not left out of vital conversations happening in their circles. By teaching seniors how to log in, post, and engage meaningfully, I help them stay current and involved in this digital space where so much critical information is shared. My program is about more than just teaching them how to post; it’s about empowering them to access a world of knowledge and connections that keep them at the heart of modern life.”  

To be Black in America already comes with challenges, but to be an elder and Black can mean facing a compounded struggle, especially when it comes to digital inclusion. Too often, we forget about them in our rush toward the next big thing. But their wisdom and lived experiences are invaluable. They matter. And they deserve the same access to the digital world that shapes the lives of younger generations, not just for their benefit, but for ours too. By ensuring our elders are included in this digital age, we’re honoring the role they play in our communities, recognizing their contributions, and building a more just and inclusive society.  

Detroit has recognized the significant problem posed by the digital divide and has taken decisive action to address it. A major step in this effort was hiring Christine Burkette as the Director of the Digital Equity and Inclusion Department. Burkette’s role is pivotal in ensuring that every Detroit resident has access to affordable high-speed internet, necessary devices, and digital skills training. Her work involves identifying gaps in digital access across the city and implementing effective solutions to bridge these gaps, fostering an equitable digital landscape for all. 

Christine Burkette’s impactful work has not gone unnoticed. As of late, Burkette was named Woman of the Year in Technology at the Michigan Council of Women in Technology’s 11th Executive Connection Summit. Additionally, the National Digital Inclusion Alliance (NDIA) named her a 2023 Digital Inclusion Trailblazer in recognition of her dedicated efforts to close the digital divide. As the pandemic highlighted, digital inclusion is essential for individuals to fully participate and thrive in today’s world. Detroit has maintained its commitment to digital equity beyond the quarantine period, understanding that the community’s needs are ongoing. In her first six months, Burkette has made significant progress, driving forward initiatives that ensure all residents have equal access to high-speed internet and effective technology. “In the City of Detroit, we are constantly striving to achieve greatness, and that includes our digital equity efforts,” said Burkette. “The Office of Digital Equity and Inclusion works to identify discrepancies in the City and implement solutions that create an even playing field for all residents.” 

It’s time to stop seeing technology as a young person’s game and start embracing it as a tool that can elevate all generations. By providing our elders with the knowledge and resources to engage online, we open doors to a world of connection, empowerment, and purpose. They are a cornerstone of our culture, and their participation enriches the broader conversation. Supporting their digital inclusion isn’t just the right thing to do—it’s essential for keeping us all moving forward together.  

As we spotlight the stark realities of the digital divide in Detroit’s Black communities, particularly among older generations, it’s clear that this is more than a tech issue—it’s a profound civil rights challenge demanding immediate and bold action. The senior digital divide is leaving Detroit’s elders disconnected from critical opportunities and support systems. This isn’t just about getting people online; it’s about securing the fundamental rights to education, employment, and health that are tied to digital resources.  

It’s high time to transform awareness into action, making sure that as Detroit moves forward, Detroit’s older generations are part of this digital evolution, connected, informed, and empowered.  


This story is part of the Digital Equity Local Voices Fellowship lab. The lab initiative is made possible with support from Comcast NBC Universal.

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