Young people in Hungary are teaching thousands of senior citizens how to navigate the cybersphere in a countrywide corporate-civic partnership.

It’s 2:15 p.m. on a gray Wednesday afternoon in November. High school students and elderly people are pairing up in the computer room of the Horvath Boldizsar technical school in Szombathely, some 200 kilometers west of Budapest. The nine study pairs occupy all but one of the room’s tables.

Since the COVID pandemic and lockdowns, retired people are becoming more open to the online world, seeing it as a way to keep in touch and informed, and be entertained, too. However, intention is not enough, and many elderly people need someone to show them how to turn a device on, where to click – in a way they can understand.

In this classroom, teenagers are introducing 60ish and 70ish pensioners to a skill that young people are almost born with: how to use smart devices and the internet.

“At first I was nervous about what would happen if they asked complicated questions,” 15-year-old Julia said after the training session. “But they are really interested in how it works, which surprised me, as well as how advanced some of them are already. I like being asked for my opinion,” she said.

“It feels good to say ‘I’m the boss,’ ” Vince, 16, replied when asked how he likes being a teacher.

Katalin, one of their “students,” had taken some computer lessons before but says she didn’t learn as much as she does here. Those lessons were not so personalized, the 68-year-old said.

“Even though I used a computer in my active years, I didn’t know how to send an attachment or a picture by email, and this is what I have learned now,” she said.

A Call From the Phone Company

Legyelteis! Most generacios (Now Generation) was launched on the initiative of Magyar Telekom, Hungary’s biggest phone company. Bringing to life a program where young people teach adults involved plenty of twists and turns for the participants, as well as for the civil society groups and pensioner’s associations that coordinate Now Generation in cities and towns across Hungary.

The program started in March 2019 in pilot mode, initially for three months. At that time, the students and pensioners met in four high schools in Budapest. The results were positive, so in the autumn of that year, Telekom and the participating civil society groups extended the initiative to the nationwide level.

“We learned a lot at the beginning, including things like if there is a computer room on the third floor of a school, it is a disqualifying factor for a couple of seniors,” said Rita Turk, Magyar Telekom’s communications expert and one of the program’s developers.

In the beginning, the elderly “students” were reached through pensioner clubs, if someone there could help with organization. Seeing the potential to expand the project nationwide, since 2021 the National Organization of Pensioners (NYOSZ), with 100,000 members, has helped run the program – now active in seven of the country’s eight regions – along with other NGOs or pensioner groups, with Magyar Telekom taking the overall coordination role.

“There haven’t been many similar programs. Usually a qualified IT teacher tries to teach the elderly, but it has never been so personal and topic-oriented. Both the pensioners and the students enjoy it,” said Zsofia Tasnadi from the Elmenylelo Youth Association, an NGO that organizes the sessions in the city of Pecs in southern Hungary.

To be successful, the program needs the active involvement of people from schools, civil society, and seniors, according to Zsoka Alacsony, coordinator of the Democratic Youth Association (DIA) in Budapest, one of Telekom’s partners in the project. Once that level of cooperation is reached, she said, “After the first two or three sessions, it almost runs by itself.”

In the guide it produced for the participating organizations, Telekom recommends a preparatory session for the young teachers – a kind of warm-up on how to communicate with older people and the kinds of topics that may arise when they meet.

The main goal for these preliminary training sessions is to create an atmosphere of trust through team building – skills that were hard to maintain during the pandemic, Alacsony says. “Students already had a hard time getting back to school, and it is especially true for an extracurricular program like this.”

The school community service requirement is essential for the implementation of the program and the recruitment of students. This is a state-mandated, 50-hour community service activity that students must complete in order to graduate from high school – anything from walking dogs to picking up trash to helping out at a children’s camp.

Location is another key factor. The student teachers’ own schools are ideal locations if sessions are scheduled after the day’s classes have ended, provided the school has a computer room where seniors who don’t own a smartphone or computer can work. In Pecs and in Nyirbator, a smaller city in eastern Hungary, however, the sessions are held in a community center or at a pensioners’ association.

Then Came COVID

The coming of the coronavirus pandemic and country-wide lockdowns severely affected the program in 2020 and 2021.

“It was a big slap in the face when, after a promising start, the school closures came in March 2020. We had to decide whether to give up or try to do something,” Turk said.

Many of the pensioners had not reached a level of proficiency where they could have kept up if the sessions were moved entirely online. To get around this, the participating students were tasked with making short videos about how to use a smartphone. Some of these were made available on Telekom’s website, making them more convenient for the pensioners compared to a webchat, for instance. Distance learning allowed students to continue helping pensioners learn the ropes of the internet from their homes.

In all, students submitted more than 400 teaching videos to Telekom. About 240 were accepted and are still available on the Now Generation website, divided into eight topics. Many people were reached this way, as well as through the program’s YouTube channel. The most popular instructional aid already has more than 58,000 views – a 3-minute video about the basic settings of an Android smartphone.

When in-person sessions restarted in January 2022, the program changed to a hybrid format. Currently, teaching takes place both online and in person. The goal is to return to offline, personal meetings only as soon as possible.

There is definitely a demand for this kind of service.

Since 2019, Telekom says, more than 3,000 students and 3,700 pensioners have attended 329 personal sessions. More than 50,000 elderly people have viewed program materials online, the company estimates, with YouTube being the most popular site for viewing educational material and the figure for overall online reach is now above 916,000.

Telekom’s plans to enlarge the program, reaching more pensioners and students, now face a new challenge: not medical, but financial, as high energy costs connected to the war in Ukraine are forcing schools to trim their budgets. Some schools say they cannot provide space for the Now Generation sessions; others only operate in the morning to save on heating and electricity bills.

The Over-70 Digital Divide

Including more elderly people in the digital sphere is an important social goal, yet there are questions around the best way to accomplish this. Around one in five Hungarians are past working age, or some 2 million people, and while more and more of them have gone online, often when the internet became a vital communication medium during the COVID pandemic, they still lag far behind younger people.

The older age group is where most help is needed now, said Bence Sagvari, a sociologist at the Center for Social Sciences in Budapest.

Older people, he said, “were socialized into a different media culture, with a different culture of mistrust and doubt.”

According to him, Now Generation and other “corporate social responsibility” projects tend to be sporadic, localized efforts.

“They absolutely have a right to exist, but it is also apparent that they might have a minimal overall impact on the societal level,” he said. But neither is he confident that the task can be done differently.

“There is no certainty that a huge state program can be put together for this at all,” he said.

The largest segment of the 20 to 25 percent of Hungarians who use the internet little or not at all comprise those over 60 and those with a primary school education. They may have a smartphone, but do not use it to go online, according to research conducted in 2022 for the Center for Social Sciences and the National Laboratory of Artificial Intelligence.

As the pandemic rolled into a second year in 2021, the greatest rise in internet use was seen among people over 50, according to a survey commissioned by the National Media and Communications Authority. In one year, the proportion of internet users in this age group rose by almost 10 percent, so that now two-thirds of over-50s use the internet at least on a weekly basis.

The biggest decline begins over the age of 70 and accelerates with increasing age. Overall, only three out of 10 people in this age group use the internet, the survey found.

Across the Generation Gap

Ensuring a safe environment during Now Generation meetings is of fundamental importance, since the sessions bring together two vulnerable age groups, teenagers and pensioners. Telekom partnered with the Hintalovon Child Rights Foundation to develop guidelines and shared e-learning materials for students, pensioners, teachers, and civil society organizations. Someone from the local coordinating group is also on hand during training sessions.

“Everyone liked the sessions a lot; there was no negative feedback. The biggest positive experience is that friendships were developing between the students and the pensioners,” said the head of the Talentum Foundation in Szeged, Krisztina Zsivkovicsne Gyenes.

“Sometimes young people say that pensioners talk a lot, while the elderly usually say that some students are better at explaining things while others don’t talk enough. If there is a communication block, we go there and help, so the young person gets the hang of it,” she added.

Talentum offers courses composed of five sessions, usually with 10 pairs of students and older people. Some pairs work together for several weeks, or even months.

One possible stumbling block is that youngsters who have not had much contact with older people in their lives may not understand the need for patience, says educational psychologist Eniko Hajdu. Students can also experience this as a failure. On the other hand, pensioners may think it’s their fault if something has to be explained for the fifth time and they still don’t get it.

“It can also be the case that a teenager has lost an elderly relative and has an unconscious expectation to replace him or her. In such cases, attention must be paid to setting limits,” she said.

In addition to the transmission of knowledge, in this reverse teaching situation young people can connect with previous generations, get to know their experiences and traditions, and this new point of view can help them navigate in today’s world, the psychologist said. Students can gain self-confidence and the sense of being competent, not to mention learning the value of patience.

“It’s enriching for young people to experience that even over 70 you can start from scratch,” Hajdu said. She explains that while the school system conditions students to concentrate on the next exam or paper, then graduation and university admission, the program broadens their understanding of learning. They can see with their own eyes that learning is possible outside the institutional framework. She says the experience of cooperation and helping others can last a lifetime, and can affect their decisions in their adult life as well.

Elderly people, too, gain more than just new skills, Hajdu says. They can connect with new people, receive new stimuli in their everyday life, and new ways to communicate and fill their spare time.

It can also be an educational experience for the young people who see that “this is how you can interact with the elderly,” said Daniel Toth, a psychologist specializing in parenting. They may think that “if I can talk to a stranger like this, then I can go visit grandma, too.”

Pensioners’ associations are particularly happy about the initiative and have taken it to heart. “An extra benefit of the program is that young people can learn about the changed abilities associated with old age. In the old days, when several generations lived together in one large family, the opinions of the elderly were sought out. Today, most of the time, pensioners live alone because the children have moved elsewhere, gone abroad,” said Magdolna Roman, head of the National Organization of Pensioners in Szabolcs county.

Reka,16, participated in the program in Pecs. “I was helping two very nice old ladies. I showed them how to write an SMS and e-mail, how to start and receive a call, and also a bit about how to use Google,” she said.

Reka also learned about herself in the process.

“I got to know different perspectives on the world and picked up advice for my future, too,” she said.

Anna Debreczeni is a journalist based in Budapest. She writes mostly about economic and social issues and also works as a content manager for the online economics magazine

Photos courtesy of Magyar Telekom.