The national lockdowns and associated mobility restrictions resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic has caused a substantial shift in the digital sphere. Consumers and businesses going digital, online education, and telemedicine have seen an unprecedented growth globally. Prior to this U-turn, digitalisation has already transformed society by powering rapid changes in economic activities and employment opportunities as digital access has become essential to using public services or participating as an active agent in the economy.
While the use of digital devices has become integral to our lives, digital uptake has been unequal across the UK. This has given rise to a digital divide, defined as the separation between those individuals who have access to information and communications technology through digital devices, and those who do not. Those excluded from digital access cannot reap its benefits and may be unable to use tele-health services, access online education and publicly available knowledge, utilise e-commerce, or use online marketplaces for entrepreneurial endeavours.
Digital inclusion is achieved across three levels, the first being material accessibility. This encompasses an individual’s access to a broadband internet connection and to digital devices. The next level is digital literacy. Metrics to assess digital literacy skills include the extent to which individuals can communicate, transact, use problem-solving techniques, and create using digital devices. These skills form the foundation of knowledge through which individuals can navigate the digital sphere. The third level is optimisation of these digital skills. Once all individuals possess basic digital literacy, enhancing these skills can increase employability and financial benefits and put them on par with others.
Patterns in the UK’s digital inequalities
In 2018, the UK had over 5.3 million internet non-users, a term denoting those who have never accessed the internet or have not accessed it in the past three months. Across regions, London has the lowest proportion of internet non-users at 7.0%, while Northern Ireland has the highest proportion at 14.2%. While the number of internet non-users has been on the decline since 2011, the patterns which emerge from this data reveal disproportionate vulnerability to digital inequality amongst certain groups.
Digital inequality in the UK has a distinctly gendered aspect. More than half of all non-internet users are women. In 2018, this figure was at 58% or 3.1 million non-internet users. This proportion has remained broadly consistent across 2011-2018, illustrating the absence of dedicated action towards tackling this gendered schism. Partially responsible for this divide is the greater purchasing power of men, as women suffering from lower financial independence may be unable to purchase digital devices. Additionally, a lack of online security and frequent harassment are also barriers to women’s access to the internet. To understand the gendered dynamics of digital access more thoroughly, more gender disaggregated data at all levels is needed.
Disabled individuals (individuals with physical or mental health conditions lasting longer than 12 months) are another group disproportionately affected by the digital divide. In 2017, 56% of adult internet non-users were disabled. This figure is far greater than the proportion of disabled adults in the UK population as a whole, which was around 22% for the same year. In this respect, barriers include a lack of disability-friendly applications and devices, and an absence of technical support from telecommunication companies tailored to disabled individuals.
Over 10 million individuals in the UK currently lack adequate digital skills. Yet, nine in ten businesses say a basic level of digital skills is important for employees, despite only one in four employees having had digital skills training from their employer. Thus, increasing digital literacy is of paramount importance. This can be achieved by introducing digital literacy training in workplaces. Currently, the Government provides full funding for Essential Digital Skills qualifications, but Level 1 qualifications are often not enough for employers. So funds must be allocated to digital upskilling programs that go beyond basic skills, and are easily accessible to women and disabled individuals.
Data costs and limited broadband connectivity in rural areas are another impediment to equal digital access. To tackle this, the Government should work with telecommunications companies to end data poverty. One affordable data strategy solution is the National Databank created by the non-profit group, Good Things Foundation, in partnership with Virgin Media O2. The has created over 35 Online Centres where individuals can obtain data vouchers that can be loaded into existing and new SIM cards.
Enhancing access to digital devices can also be seen as a social phenomenon. In 2017, the ONS found that the most common reason for a lack of internet access was a perceived lack of need, followed by digital illiteracy. This perceived lack of need could be the consequence of a lack of understanding regarding the benefits of technology: individuals need a thorough understanding of what the Internet is, how it functions, why it may be of interest, and how to gain utility from it. Education regarding digital skills needs to include the benefits of the digital sphere and should help individuals to overcome their apprehension regarding engagement with devices. Conversations with friends and relatives as well as engagement with media such as newspapers, books, or watching television may also educate individuals regarding the benefits of digital access. Public interest advertisement campaigns may also be of help in disseminating information about the practicality and functionality of digital devices.
Finally, community-based support centres for assistance with digital devices can be an important forum for improving digital skills and asking questions. The development of the digital economy can offer disabled individuals work from home opportunities that transcend mobility restrictions. Here, community support networks can help by providing tailored assistance to disabled individuals or offer help to women and other groups facing online harassment. Digital equality must be at the heart of public investment and COVID-19 recovery so that all individuals can reap the social and economic opportunities the digital sphere provides. No one can and should be left behind in the digital revolution.
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