What is digital exclusion? 

Digital exclusion describes the growing social problem of a select proportion of society lacking access to digital technology and/or the adequate skills to effectively and confidently navigate the internet. Within this broad category, there are those who experience ‘data poverty’ which is experienced by individuals who are unable to afford a secure, stable, and private broadband connection which adequately meets their needs (Lucas & Robinson, 2020).  Digital exclusion extends not only to access, connectivity and skills but can also encompass a person’s motivation and interest in getting online, or lacking the support and guidance needed to confidently get online (Allmann, 2022). 

This blog aims to raise awareness of the growing social problem of digital exclusion in the UK while arguing that using methods to promote digital inclusion can foster better human connections and relationships. Since the COVID-19 pandemic, it is clear that more aspects of life have moved to the online sphere, household internet access increased from 76% to 89% between 2011 and 2020, however 6% of households in the UK do not have home internet access (Ofcom, 2022).  Within the proportion of those who ‘are online’, 6.8 million (13%) are considered to have ‘ultra-low digital skills’ which describes digital segmentation within those who are ‘online’ and measures their digital engagement (LLoyds Bank, 2023).  As a result, those with ‘ultra-low digital skills’ are more likely to earn a lower annual income, with 59% earning up to £20,000 a year (LLoyds Bank, 2023). Digital exclusion is such a fundamental problem due to the unique way it infiltrates into other aspects of life. For example, being digitally excluded can impact your health, in terms of being able to book doctor appointments and limiting access to emergency care. It can reduce mental well-being by promoting feelings of loneliness and isolation. Digital exclusion can also limit access to educational and job opportunities. Thus, this type of marginalisation can have widespread impacts on an individual’s overall quality of life. Many of these findings were discussed in RJ4All’s recent report on digital exclusion in Southwark (SE16) and the United Kingdom. 

I was involved in carrying out interviews at our RJ4All community centre about digital exclusion and its connection to community voice in SE16. Some core themes reoccurred in each interview. The core finding was interviewees not having the basic skills to navigate the internet which gave rise to feelings of being isolated. thus limiting the meaningful engagement they can have with their community and wider society. Interviewees described being “disconnected” or “cut off” from their community due to them lacking the skills to be online. This led to feelings of not having a voice or not knowing “who’s listening”.  In a thriving community such as the one in SE16 it is heartbreaking to hear that there are those who don’t feel part of their community due to lack of digital access.  

Can tech create better in-person relationships? 

The most interesting finding from the interviews carried out was the emphasis and significant concern placed on having limited access to in-person interactions while being digitally excluded. This was highlighted throughout the interview process more than their experiences of having limited access to services.  An interesting question that arises out of this finding is, can getting online actually foster stronger in-person connections? One of the interviewees made the point that technology is very important but, instead of tech being the answer it can be a bridge to bring people together.  Unfortunately, there is a significant amount of research that indicates increased internet use leads to a rise in loneliness. The COVID-19 Pandemic is a recent example of this where previously in-person elements of life moved online, a correlation was found between this move and increased loneliness amongst children, adolescents, and the elderly (Dahlberg, 2021; see also Farrell, Vitoroulis, Eriksson, & Vaillancourt, 2023). However, it may not be the internet itself but how we use the internet. If it is used to promote human connections rather than surface-level online connections it can arguably strengthen communities and be an effective medium to bring people together.  

Creating spaces to foster human connections is vital for promoting community engagement. Examples of this can be seen in the RJ4All community centre. As part of the ‘Postcode Project’, RJ4All aims to build the world’s first restorative justice postcode in SE16 by addressing inequality and promoting a holistic stance to the alleviation of poverty. In terms of addressing digital exclusion, RJ4All provides a free digital hub that provides free data, devices, digital workshops, and one-to-one digital drop-ins (RJ4All, 2023). Services like this can be a useful mechanism in eradicating digital exclusion while facilitating important human connections. In turn, this strengthens community relations and gives a voice to those deemed voiceless in the digital world. 

 

Bibliography 

Allmann, K. (2022). UK Digital Poverty Evidence Review 2022. Digital Poverty Alliance. Retrieved from https://digitalpovertyalliance.org/about-us/#determinants-rainbow 

Dahlberg, L. (2021). Lonliness During the COVID-19 Pandemic. Aging & Mental Health 25(7), 1161-1164. 

Farrell, A., Vitoroulis, I., Eriksson, M., & Vaillancourt, T. (2023). Lonliness and Well-Being in Children and Adolescents during the COVID-19 Pandemic: A Systematic Review. Children 10(2). 

LLoyds Bank. (2023). 2023 Consumer Digital Index: The UK’s largest study of digital and financial lives.  

Lucas, P. J., & Robinson, R. (2020). What is Data Poverty.  

Ofcom. (2022). Digital Exclusion: A review of Ofcom’s research on digital exclusion among adults in the UK.  

RJ4All. (2023). State of Digital Exclusion Report: Southwark (SE16) and United Kingdom.