The Digital Divide

Throughout the pandemic, the digital divide between young people from more affluent areas and those experiencing high levels of disadvantage has become more apparent. In this blog, we hear from Peter Williams, the Trust’s Network and Communications Officer on the vital need to address this inequality which has a huge impact on education and increases social isolation.

The Digital divide is a term used to describe the gap between demographic groups that have access to modern information and communications technology and those who are restricted. The lack of digital skills can have a huge impact on a young persons’ life leading to worse health outcomes, lack of opportunities for jobs and education, as well as increased social isolation. [1]

Throughout the pandemic, the digital divide between young people from more affluent areas and those experiencing high levels of disadvantage has become more apparent. What this means for many young people, is that they are unable to access vital resources which enables them to connect to their peers or access to educational resources. Young people’s lives are increasingly informed by communication technologies at home, at school and in the community. We know that strong social connections protect health and are essential foundations for other positive health and well-being changes, but in the case of young people from low income households, they are more isolated than ever before. According to a July 2020 report from Youth Sport Trust, more than two-fifths (41%) of children and young people aged 8-24 say that they are lonelier now than before restrictions were put in place.

For many families living in areas experiencing disadvantage, the cost of internet access is a barrier for young people being able to connect with others online. The Lloyds Bank UK Digital Index highlights a stark statistic that more than half (53%) of the offline population which constitutes 11 percent of the overall population may not have the disposable income to afford an average monthly broadband bill. The index also shows that 700,000 11‐18-year-olds (12%) have no home internet access from a computer or tablet. A further 60,000 11‐18-year-olds do not have any home internet access at all.

What is more concerning is how for some, the transition to home school learning has been a challenge due to the lack of internet access or a digital device and this has had a detrimental impact on young people’s educational attainment. Prior to national lockdown restrictions, there was already a growing attainment gap between young people from affluent areas and young people from disadvantaged areas, however, the lockdown has only widened the gap even further. According to the Sutton Trust, in the most deprived schools, 15% of teachers report that more than a third of their students do not have adequate access to an electronic device for learning from home, compared to only 2% in the most affluent state schools. This means that the educational outcomes of some young people are being affected by the digital divide in having the adequate resources to learn.

Prior to COVID-19 restrictions, libraries tackled the barrier to digital access by providing free Wi-Fi, computers, and other technologies, to young people from low income households. However, with the closure of libraries, young people are finding it difficult to gain internet access and therefore missing out on the benefits of being online Having digital access is vital for young people to develop the digital skills in an ever-growing digital world where careers prospects will be dominated by the digital economy in the future. However, for many young people living in low income households, they are unable to access the skills that could potentially lead to social mobility. A report from the Carnegie UK Trust highlights that young people felt more confident as their digital literacy increased which only sheds light on the importance of digital accessibility.

Despite the difficulties that young people are facing, some of our funded projects are working hard to bridge the digital divide and connect with young people who have limited internet access. Jay Mills a community development worker from the Local Conversation in Haverhill has utilised a variety of innovative methods by creating a Messenger group called ‘Drop In Gang!’ which hosted virtual drop-ins for young people every Thursday to speak about how they were coping with the lockdown, as well as an interactive session where young people showcase their photography. In addition, the Local Conversation in Haverhill ensure that digital devices such as tablets were made available to the young people which allowed them to stay connected.

There are organisations which are specifically working on bridging the digital divide. The Good Things Foundation focuses on improving digital accessibility for all and ensuring people can access the information and services they require. The charity provides brilliant initiatives, designed to combat social isolation through building support to people without the means to connect digitally though its many programs. One program in particular, “the Digital Deal” which consisted of 12 pilot projects, was led by social landlords to test innovative ways to get tenants online and improve their digital skills. As a result, residents in social housing benefited from improved skills and access to digital services.

As we go into another lockdown with schools closed again, it is imperative that digital exclusion is addressed during the pandemic in order to lessen the catastrophic effects it will have on young people’s mental health and education. And evidence shows that simply by providing adequate resources for people to have access to the internet, it is possible to bridge the digital divide.

[1] The Good Things Foundation-2020

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