The Changing Face of Digital Exclusion: It’s not your nan

The Online Centres Network has been delivering digital inclusion for over 10 years. Last autumn, we celebrated helping 2 million people get online.

Released earlier this year, Lloyds Banking Group’s Consumer Digital Index showed that the total number of people in the UK without basic digital skills dropped by 1.1m, taking the total down from 12.6m to 11.5m.

That’s strange, I hear you say, 2m people trained but only 1.1m fewer off the digitally excluded population. What’s going on?

When most people think about someone with a poor grasp of the web, they tend to focus on their nan: a typically older person who may well be educated and well-off, but who’s never really had the need to bank, shop or socialise online. This stereotype is increasingly unhelpful. It represents a declining group within the offline population and provokes policy responses that cater for very specific needs.

Shutterstock.com stock photos

To get away from this stereotype, we’ve been exploring who else falls into the broad category of the ‘digitally excluded’.

Young or old, poverty is still the main determiner of whether someone is online or not. And while age remains an important factor, it’s giving way to some new groups.

Young, digitally excluded people

Snapchat Download

We’re coming across young people who, while they might spend all day glued to their smart phones, wouldn’t know where to start if sat in front of a laptop and asked to write a CV. These young people are hard to spot. On the face of it they’re hyperconnected digital natives. Ask them if they’re connected to the web, they own a smartphone or even how frequently they use it and you’ll get positive answers. But volume of use does’t equate to breadth. So far, only a handful of employers will let you apply for a job via Snapchat and yet 10% of young people not in education, employment don’t know how to send a CV online.

Ex offenders

If you’ve been inside recently, any access you’ve had to digital will have been severely limited at best and illegal at worst. There’s an ‘internet in prisons’ scheme underway but until that happens an offender will leave prison with the same digital skills they went in with. For the 43% of prisoners serving terms of at least 4 years, this can have a dramatic effect on rehabilitation when they’re released back into the community. Hard to imagine a world without the iPhone? If you’ve been inside for more than ten years, that’s the world you’re expecting to come back to.

People who have been away from work

This isn’t just the long-term unemployed. Mums and dads who have been away from the workforce for a long time often find their digital skills lacking when it comes to rejoining the workforce. While they might have kept up with digital means to communicate and socialise, cloud-based services and new work-based applications will have passed them by.

Theresa and Wilson at our Online Centre in Kensington

This means that digital skills aren’t binary any more — you’re no longer just online or not. Digital skills are a spectrum and people move in and out of ‘exclusion’ depending on how long they’ve been away from digital in different areas of their life.

It also means that digital exclusion is increasingly tied to other areas of social exclusion — and the approach we take to tackling digital exclusion must tackle those social problems as well. You can’t separate the digital inclusion needs of a homeless person from the other needs they have. If you’re working with migrants and refugees, you need to recognise the barrier poor English presents to being online (which is why Good Things Foundation runs the English My Way ESOL programme).

Similarly, if a digital native with a smartphone or a dad who’s mainly used social media for the last 10 years can have low digital skills, we need more robust ways to identify and understand emerging digitally excluded groups across the skills spectrum. Being a regular Facebook user can be a deeply misleading indicator, which I’ve written about here.

Digital exclusion needs a makeover — one that positions it firmly in-line with other social exclusion indicators. Only by doing that will we design solutions that get to the heart of the problem. Digital exclusion is a symptom, not the disease.