Coronavirus

COVID-19 has revealed inequalities regarding digital inclusion

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As our generation becomes unbalanced, impacted by events beyond our control, our lives become more technological. We now rely on a multitude of applications on our phones and laptops to keep us entertained and to connect with loved ones.

Structuring our daily lives through technology, whether that be from working from home to receiving and using data from the Government’s Track and Trace app, the online world has become one we are more reliant on.

However, not everyone has the luxuries of being so technologically advanced. Age, poverty, disabilities, and illiteracy are all factors which can limit and therefore digitally exclude large numbers of groups.

The NHS Track and Trace system, along with the contact tracing app, is a system we have become aware of. Pre lockdown, if you entered pubs, bars or restaurants and didn’t have the NHS COVID-19 app, you could just ‘sign yourself in’ with pen on paper.

Does this simple method mean digital exclusion is for many solved? Well, not quite. If you have been notified to self-isolate, the government sends you a text with more information which opens a website.

And now that COVID-19 vaccines are being rolled out, to book an appointment, you must follow a clickable link. To reduce the spread of COVID-19 between people, you can now see a doctor quickly and ‘easily’ through an application on your phone. Do you see the pattern?

It’s therefore evident that owning a smartphone is not a privilege, but a necessity in today’s society. 11,500,000 people lack the basic digital skills needed to use the internet effectively in the UK. 

It has been predicted that by 2030, 4.5 million people will still be digitally disengaged. That’s about eight percent of the population. This is huge and will become a massive issue unless work is done to bring people up to speed with current technology. The world cannot become so technologically advanced if we are leaving people behind.

The NHS website has outlined and acknowledged that there are barriers we must tackle including making digital services more accessible and easy to use. We must also address that not everyone is aware of the digital products available to them. 

According to a report by Ofcom, ‘thirteen percent of UK adults do not use the internet, unchanged since 2014, and three quarters of them say that nothing would encourage them to go online in the next 12 months’

What raises concerns are the contradictions the NHS website outlines. If they have acknowledged that only nine out of ten households have access to the internet, why is more not being done to make digital services accessible?

There is a drastic comparison between the age groups that use a smartphone to go online. Sixteen percent of 16 to 24-year-olds use a smartphone to access the internet, whilst only three percent of 65 to 74-year-olds do.

Amongst this, only 2 percent of 16 to 24-year-olds don’t use the internet, whilst that’s the case for thirty percent of 65 to 74-year-olds. Looking at media use by socio-economic groups, 97 percent of AB (higher, professional occupational) households use a mobile phone whilst 89 percent of DE (semi-skilled and unskilled manual occupations) households use a mobile phone.

There are stark differences among sections of the population, and the above highlights only some of many ways in which people can be digitally excluded. More needs to be done to give everybody access to the internet. 

The pandemic has exemplified not only how much more we demand and depend upon technology, but also how far it has come in bringing us all closer together and providing us with information.

Technology has changed exponentially over the years and indeed the pandemic has brought upon even more radical changes. However, we shouldn’t take too much comfort in these changes, because how we communicate has never mattered more than it does now.

Although the pandemic brings with it a season of technological change, digital exclusion must not be ignored. These disparities, therefore, impede and constrain our movements, and we must address these to create a more accessible digital society for all.

Cover image: Kristin Hardwick via StockSnap. Licence here.

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