New report exposes depth and complexity of digital poverty

An evidence review by the Digital Poverty Alliance estimates that 11 million people in the UK do not possess the digital skills required for everyday life

Authors of a new report on digital poverty claim to have revealed the depth and significance of the issue for the first time.

A charitable coalition of third, public and private sector partners, the Digital Poverty Alliance (DPA) says that the problem goes much further than simply not owning a device or being unable to access the internet.

At yesterday’s (27 June) launch of UK Evidence Review 2022 – Inclusion to Equity, the DPA underlined the extent to which education, skills and experiences are key factors in determining digital poverty levels.

For instance, little more than a third (36%) of people with no formal educational qualifications use the internet, compared to a near-universal uptake (95%) of those with higher education qualifications.

It also reports on more familiar elements of the issue, such as the impact of the pandemic on pupils from poorer backgrounds, with one in five children who had been home schooled in 2021 not having access to an appropriate device.

In another income-related figure, 2.5 million people were found to be behind on their broadband bills.

All told, estimates the DPA, around 11 million people in the UK do not possess the digital skills required for everyday life.

Digital poverty is no longer something we can ignore if we’re interested in a just society – Lord Knight, DPA co-chair

“Digital inclusion is no longer something that’s nice to have – it’s an essential,” said Lord Jim Knight, co-chair of the DPA and a former minister for employment and welfare reform, who hosted the report’s launch at the House of Lords.

“Digital poverty is being unable to interact with the digital world when and how someone needs to. Increasingly, that means not having access to fundamentals of life.

“From social security, healthcare, education and training, to finding work and applying for jobs, critical services are more and more online. Because of that, digital inclusion will lessen inequalities.”

The report emphasises that digital poverty is not always simply a matter of people lacking the means to enter an internet-based world. Instead, it says, many people are unable to see the benefits of digital engagement if it feels too difficult, or too costly.

Further, a “growing stigma” around not being able to use a computer leaves people reluctant to ask for help, further widening the gap with every new internet-based everyday norm, such as online banking or work meetings.

Read more: New report highlights regional variation in digital divide

In a bid to reverse the divide, the DPA report sets out five principles to guide the formation of a national delivery plan to end digital poverty by 2030:

  • Digital is a basic right and an essential utility, and access to it should be treated as such
  • Accessing key public services online, such as social security and healthcare, must be simple, safe, and meet everyone’s needs
  • Digital should fit into people’s lives, not be an additional burden, particularly for the most disadvantaged
  • Digital skills should be fundamental to education and training throughout life. Support must be provided to trusted intermediaries who have a key role in providing access to digital
  • There must be cross-sector efforts to provide free and open evidence on digital exclusion

“Digital poverty does not respect sector siloes, and neither should the recommendations for tackling it,” says the report. “These recommendations have implications for all sectors – government, local authorities, industry, the private sector, the third sector, and academia or the research sector.”

Digital inclusion is no longer something that’s nice to have – it’s an essential – Lord Knight

The six recommendations are:

  • Affordable and sustainable inclusion Digital inclusion must be made more affordable and sustainable through both stop-gap digital inclusion initiatives, such as device distribution,
    and long-term community investment
  • Inclusive and accessible design Technologies, platforms, and digital services must be designed to be safe, inclusive, accessible and privacy-protecting from the outset
  • People-centred and community-embedded interventions Digital inclusion policy, interventions, and research need to meet people where they already are by fostering and
    utilising existing community-based, formal, and informal spaces for inclusion, and focusing on helping people meet their own goals and objectives
  • Skills to engage and empower The skills required are more than technical competencies, like typing and internet searching. Instead, digital literacy must treat digital as part of civic life, encompassing critical thinking and awareness of data rights, privacy, and consent
  • Support for the whole journey Digital inclusion needs to accommodate a shifting and increasingly complex digital landscape by supporting people throughout their entire lives and meeting them where they are in that journey – in school, on the job, through the health and care system, and more
  • Building the evidence base Although a lot of research on digital exclusion and poverty exists, there are some significant gaps. Research needs to consider digital poverty in relation to social, economic, political, and health inequality, and vice versa – these issues cannot remain siloed

“Being cut off from digital isn’t just an inconvenience,” added Knight. “It compounds and exacerbates poverty and disadvantage, increasing disconnection from society, democracy and opportunity. That’s no longer something we can ignore if we’re interested in a just society.”

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