Social Justice

Digital inclusion: What is it and why is it important?

The importance of digital inclusion is often underestimated. Here's what you need to know.

digital inclusion

Smartphones have become almost ubiquitous, and more and more services rely on digital access. Image: Esther Vargas/Flickr

Digital inclusion might be a term that goes over some heads – but it’s at the heart of many social issues affecting disadvantaged Brits.

As more and more parts of our lives move online, having access to and the skills to use a smartphone, a computer and the internet can be the difference between affording daily living costs and being trapped in poverty. 

Being digitally excluded has been linked to poorer health and lower life expectancy, World Health Organisation figures have shown and around 10 million people in the UK struggle to navigate the digital landscape that dictates much of everyday life, according to Lloyds Bank research. Here’s what you need to know.

What is digital inclusion?

Digital inclusion means making sure everyone can benefit from the internet and technology, regardless of their background or income.

Campaigners fighting against the digital exclusion which keeps many locked out of essential services say people can lack the skills and confidence to manage their lives online, or do not have the equipment and internet connection to do so. 

In many cases it’s both, particularly for care leavers, people who do not speak English as a first language or disabled people who need assistive technology.

This creates “additional layers of social exclusion and exacerbates social and economic problems,” said Citizens Online, a digital inclusion charity. “Getting online is usually life-enhancing and it can be life-changing.”

Why is digital inclusion so important?

Disadvantaged communities are at risk of being left further behind if they’re not supported to fully embrace the digital age.

Being able to afford and use a smartphone or computer – and being able to afford data or broadband – is essential in managing benefits claims, finding and applying for jobs, navigating the asylum system and getting qualifications which can lead to work or better pay.

The Covid-19 crisis quickly highlighted the barriers created by digital exclusion when the government became embroiled in a laptops for schools scandal, with thousands of children struggling to learn from home without computers or internet connections. 

It also showed why people who are already at a disadvantage can be further marginalised by being locked out of the digital sphere. Older people were isolated and people on low incomes or without a job were impacted, while some – particularly homeless people – could not easily access the information they needed on how to keep themselves safe during lockdown.

“Our reliance on connectivity has sharpened dramatically over the last year, as people found themselves needing to work, rest and play all within the confines of their own homes,” said Andy Wales, chief digital impact and sustainability officer for BT.

“The way we interact with tech, and find ourselves needing it, has in many ways been a positive force for good – more people are feeling more confident doing things they never had to do before. But many are struggling, and the last year has exposed the digital skills gap like never before.”

Making sure everyone is digitally included doesn’t stop at access and skills. 

“Not all digital services and products are accessible and easy to use,” according to NHS Digital, which works to improve the design of technology.

Staff capability and capacity can create issues too, the experts said. “Not all health and care staff have the skills and knowledge to recommend digital services and products to patients.”

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How many people are digitally excluded?

Around 90 per cent of UK households have internet access, according to Office for National Statistics data, while 78 per cent go online using a mobile device like a smartphone.

But official figures show 11.3 million people in the UK don’t have the basic skills they need to use the internet. Nearly five million people reported never going online at all.

Around eight per cent of the UK population could still be digitally disengaged by 2030, according to the Consumer Digital Index report from Lloyds Bank. It found that disabled people are already 35 per cent less likely to have the digital skills and connectivity they need.

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