Underneath the Digital Divide is Shocking Inequality

Douglas White, head of advocacy at Carnegie UK Trust, presents new research revealing how wider inequality underlies the digital divide in Scotland and the UK. Originally published in Third Force News.


For many of us the digital world is all-consuming. Ofcom’s annual report on the UK communications market revealed earlier this year that half of all internet users miss out on sleep due to the amount of time they spend online, while one in ten of us check the internet more than 50 times a day.

Yet, the World Economic Forum has claimed that there are four billion people across the globe who don’t have internet access, and according to the latest ONS internet user figures, 5.3 million people in the UK have never used the internet. These are big numbers, so where do we start in trying to enable everyone to get online to make sure that they don’t get left behind?

The pace in which technology is evolving can present challenges for us all in keeping up with what’s new and current. There is no question, however, that the digital revolution has brought remarkable opportunities for improved wellbeing for the vast majority of people. We now enjoy more personalised services, cheaper goods and products, more choice, wider connections with others and radically improved access to knowledge and communication.

But this pace of change also brings significant risks. Those who are already connected and have a sufficient level of digital skills will adapt and prosper as society becomes ever more digital – including many more public services moving fully online in the next five years. However, unless digital exclusion is addressed this pattern will lead to the already considerable gap between those who are digitally engaged and those who are not becoming increasingly, and worryingly, wider.

In a bid to better understand who is being left behind, along with if there are particular facets of social deprivation that are more closely associated with being offline, the Carnegie UK Trust and Ipsos MORI have interrogated the Scottish Household Survey dataset to look at the correlation between digital exclusion and social deprivation in Scotland in more depth than ever before.

Unsurprisingly, the analysis reveals the high degree of overlap between digital exclusion and commonly cited characteristics of deprivation. Put simply, those who are older, on low incomes, live in social rented accommodation or live in poorer neighbourhoods are significantly less likely to have digital access than the rest of the population.

However, the research established that the relationship between digital and social exclusion goes much further than this. Those who don’t have the internet are less likely to have a car; to have been on a flight in the past year; to participate in sport; to go to the cinema, a library or live music; to read, dance, sing or play a musical instrument; to volunteer; to use council services; or take part in outdoor leisure or recreation at least once a week.

To date, responses to digital inclusion across different sectors have tended to treat the issue as a standalone programme or delivery silo, important in its own right but required to compete with other, much more established players such as education, health, social care, welfare and housing for resources and attention.

Such an approach will no longer suffice. If we want to enable everyone to maximise the benefits that the digital transformation brings – and mitigate the risks – then it’s time to move digital inclusion into the public policy mainstream.

It requires all those developing or delivering services with and for citizens – from charities, government and public service providers – to recognise the critical nature of this issue and to be sufficiently confident in their own understanding of the possibilities that digital has to offer. It needs real commitment, leadership and a willingness to try out new approaches. The world is already digital – we need to act now so that everyone can benefit.

Douglas White is head of advocacy at Carnegie UK Trust. Read its Digital Participation and Social Justice in Scotland Report.

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