I’m writing this after quickly fitting in some late Christmas shopping for relatives. This involved a quick click to get my few last presents sorted, making the most of online shopping. An easy option for many of us who lead busy lives.
A digital Christmas
As we approach the festive period, I’m looking forward to seeing friends and family. Particularly after lock downs and restrictions made a ‘normal’ Christmas impossible only a year ago. Like many people, last year, I experienced my first mainly ‘digital Christmas’. Seeing family and friends through a screen rather than in person, and perhaps not recognising how fortunate I actually was to be able to do so.
Digitally excluded UK
In the hyper-connected world we live in, it’s easy to forget about the millions of people across the UK who still don’t use the internet regularly. Office for National Statistics figures released in late 2020 showed that 2.7 million UK adults were unable to access the internet. While there’s been a significant uplift in the number of people getting online out of necessity as a result of Covid, according to the Lloyds UK Consumer Digital Index 2021, 14.9 million people still have low levels of online engagement.
Many may spend some time online, but are not using the internet for essential services. Lloyds estimate that while 1.5 million more people started to use the internet last year, at least 5% of the population remain digitally excluded.
The various statistics clearly indicate that the poorer you are, the older you are and the more disabled you are, the more likely you are to be digitally excluded. Digital exclusion therefore compounding the impact of existing inequalities for many.
The impact of digital exclusion
In a world where being online is ‘normal’ to the majority, a bit like a ghost, digital exclusion is often unseen. It has a significant impact on individuals.
Imagine for example:
- a young family living on in-work benefits and looking to make Christmas special. They don’t however have access to the internet so don’t get discounts on utilities, shopping or presents throughout the year. They spend more overall than a family with digital access. A PWC report in 2009 indicated excluded households were missing out on savings of £560 per year in this way
- someone living in poverty, unable to afford data on their phone, experiencing social disconnection as a result
- an older person living alone, with a busy family who don’t live nearby, without the skills to use the internet to connect
- a person with a disability, reliant on support to access services physically, without the ability to connect, at will, to networks of support and social interaction
What councils are doing to help
At Socitm, we’ve recently worked with the LGA to better understand what councils are doing in relation to digital exclusion. While it’s a mixed picture across the country, there’s some evidence that interventions are becoming bolder. In Greater Manchester where I live for example, a Digital Inclusion Taskforce is set up. It’s embedding partnership ways of working across the public, private and third sectors to maximise impact.
What businesses are doing to help
Commercial organisations are also getting in on the act. Collectively councils have a real opportunity to use their buying power to influence commercial partners. As an example, Vodafone has pledged to connect 1 million people living in digital poverty by the end of 2022. They’re asking people to donate their tech that can be repurposed.
Last year, O2 donated 2000 mobile smartphones and a year’s worth of free data to people living in poverty at Christmas. There are a growing number of examples like this, but more that’s possible if every supplier opportunity is maximised. This is an area where councils can make a real difference.
The United Nations recently set out the concept of digital connectivity as a basic human right, and necessarily so. In a connected world, those that are disconnected are at a greater disadvantage, and it’s a solvable issue, and one where we can all do our bit.
A personal reflection
There’s some personal resonance in this for me too. I grew up on a council estate in a home where a landline was considered a luxury. We were late to get a phone and when we had one, it was often cut off due to my parents being unable to afford the phone bill.
I remember how embarrassing it was when all my friends had a landline, leaving me feeling stigmatised. It also impacted my ability to connect. If I grew up today, I would have been among the digitally excluded. And I probably wouldn’t have the job I have now.
If you’re reading this, you’re clearly online. As Christmas approaches, I’d encourage you to reflect on the people who are less fortunate than we are and for whatever reason are digitally excluded.
This Toolkit can help you make a difference to increasing digital inclusion in your area.