What are the dangers of digital poverty, and why should we not take telephone and internet usage for granted?
Modern life revolves around easily maintaining connections with loved ones and the outside world. As people adjusted to working from home or remotely during lockdown, the importance of digital skills and digital access came to the fore. Digital poverty is a phenomenon that marginalises and isolates many groups of people, including, unfortunately, those who most need internet access to receive vital state benefits. Though it would be easy to assume only the poorest or most isolated do not use the internet, 10% of adults in 2018 said that they were “internet non-users”.
Whilst lockdown has revealed the usefulness of internet access allowing remote work and education, it has also revealed the vast disadvantages faced by those who are not as fortunate. The state is not required to provide internet access to all, but, in the interests of efficiency, much government activity has become digital. For example, the free school meals being provided over the summer holidays requires using the internet to obtain these vouchers. Even if these meals go some way to alleviating food inequality, it functions under the assumption that everyone has easy internet access and digital knowledge, which is not reflective of reality. Education is vital for economic and social mobility, as well as simply for simply the intrinsic value of learning. However, remote learning requires internet access, which many families do not have. For households that are already economically disadvantaged, broadband is an expensive luxury that many cannot afford, and a computer or laptop that would enable convenient remote learning is even less likely to be affordable, when simple basic necessities may already be a concern.
Even when people may have internet access, not possessing sufficient digital skills can cause isolation from society. The internet is a major part of most people’s daily lives, whether it be connecting with friends and family, searching for information, or a necessary part of education and employment. In 2018, approximately one-fifth of people had no, or limited, digital skills, which means being unable to complete basic tasks. We cannot expect such isolated people to have access to the same resources as everyone else, or play a truly active role in society if they are disconnected from the digital world.
Marginalisation and isolation are a negative aspect of digital poverty, but it can also be a matter of life and death. Being unable to access the internet or afford telephone calls could mean not being able to be registered onto a shielding list, alert authorities of domestic abuse, or seek assistance for starvation. Although access to services, and the benefits of the internet, is a significant part of digital poverty, another consequence of limited digital knowledge is limited knowledge of the dangers of the internet. Examples include fraud, grooming, online abuse, or radicalisation.
Telephone and internet contracts must be made more affordable and readily available, and government policies should pay more attention to the isolating effects of digital poverty. We also need more programmes that teach the necessary digital skills. No amount of policies on marginalisation, isolation, or inequality will be effective if we do not deal with the problem of many people being separated from technology upon which the vast majority of society relies. At JAN Trust, we provide educational courses, including on IT skills, that alleviate some of these struggles. Our innovative Web Guardians™ programme empowers women to protect their families and communities from online extremism by educating them on online dangers and the internet.