The issue of digital exclusion is one that has surfaced in public discourse repeatedly in recent decades. Yet, regrettably, the problem persists. When the former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn released his plans to offer free broadband services across the country by 2030 – providing internet to people of all income levels – the plan was met with derision and backlash. It demonstrated that many still view internet access as a luxury rather than a necessity.
Throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, the consequences of digital exclusion have become clearer than ever to see. The pandemic is continuing to exacerbate social inequalities and is disproportionately impacting those of a lower socioeconomic status. Digital exclusion is just one manifestation of this.
In response to Covid-19, the UK adopted strict social distancing measures and guidelines that ensured the majority of its workforce would work from home. Remote working has been on the rise in recent years but this is the first time it has been widely adopted in the UK. The development of internet services and internet-based tools has enabled this transition. However, for many, this has not been an option.
There are those who have been unable to work from home not only due to their line of work but also because they do not have internet access. The UK Department of Education found that only half of households earning an income of under £10,000 have internet access. However, 99% of households with an income over £40,001 have internet access. Reports from the University of Cambridge suggest that 22% of the UK’s population lacks basic digital skills. While some can use the internet to complete work and safely interact with family, others are missing out primarily due to being unable to afford it.
The government often behaves as though adopted technologies are already universal in the UK. Prime Minister Boris Johnson, for example, proudly informed the public of the UK’s Gigabit Broadband plans. Those plans will certainly benefit the UK’s public going forward, but they need to positively impact everyone. As long as internet access is not widely available, the technological divide will continue to grow.
The impact that digital exclusion is having on family life throughout the pandemic is hugely understated, particularly for children in low-income families. Cambridge University’s research found that parents are having to decide between paying for Wi-Fi or providing other needs for their children. Children living in poverty in the UK are already at a disadvantage when compared with their peers. According to a report, only 25% of children that require social assistance manage to achieve good grades in their GCSEs.
With children now widely expected to continue their education from home or use distance learning tools from remote locations, those who live in homes without internet access are set to fall even further behind. This can negatively impact the career trajectory of children living below the poverty line. Gatekeepers still use education as a means to evaluate a person’s application for work, study, and internships. The government should seriously consider ways to offer better support for children without internet access and basic digital skills. To increase future prospects, it is important for children to have access to the same resources as their peers.
In the workplace, work trends show that employers are pressing ahead with the adaptation of internet technologies. For those that can work remotely, there are a number of benefits such as having lower work-related stress and in turn being healthier. Yet this also highlights another key challenge since, as it currently stands, 10% of the UK’s adult population has no internet access. This is detrimental at a time when most services, education, social events, and healthcare are all moving online.
What’s more, those who are digitally excluded have noted finding it difficult to find out about key information related to the Covid-19 pandemic – including testing and vaccinations – since a lot of detailed guidance is published online. As a result, it has become clear that digital inequality can hinder a person’s wellbeing and indirectly impact the wellbeing of others. Information sourced by word-of-mouth can often provide inaccuracies and cannot always be accepted with confidence – this proves dangerous in the midst of a public health crisis.
This is increasingly problematic for households facing health complications and other complexities. It is well known that poverty is associated with poor health outcomes. Digital accessibility can help to mitigate some health-related complications and has become crucial for many everyday domestic processes. Digital inaccessibility means that some are missing the relevant knowledge and key skills needed to navigate the online world.
Digital exclusion is an issue which seems to resurface every time a crisis occurs however it is yet to be addressed meaningfully. The internet has long been a basic necessity and will become more ubiquitous in the future. The UK cannot afford to leave millions of people without access to the most prevalent technology in the country. The government must support those that are socially and digitally excluded in society. It is crucial for the wellbeing of the public.
Athiei Ajuong is a writer for the Immigration Advice Service – an organisation of UK immigration lawyers providing legal advice and guidance to migrants and those seeking asylum