Tuesday, February 1, 2022
The Covid-19 pandemic has shone a spotlight on the ‘digital divide’ which widens inequalities between disadvantaged children and young people and their peers. Charlotte Goddard investigates.
It is easy to think of children and young people as “digital natives”, navigating the internet with ease. But this is a misconception, explains Theo Blackwell, chief digital officer for London. “We know children often are very adept at some parts of internet access but less so in others,” he says. The pandemic has made it impossible to ignore the fact a significant proportion of children and young people face barriers to digital inclusion, affecting their education, wellbeing and ability to make their voices heard.
“It became very clear how much of an impact digital poverty was having on a whole other host of social issues,” says Cathryn Moses-Stone, head of policy and public affairs at Catch22, which has partnered with Nominet and Livity on research into the barriers to digital skills and access for some of the most disadvantaged groups in the UK. “We had child sexual exploitation team key workers who couldn’t get in touch with young people, we had care leavers who had to choose between paying for the internet or paying for heating.”
As of December 2021, the UK government has reacted to these issues by providing 1,679,785 devices and 101,652 routers to support children’s lockdown learning. However, there have been concerns about delays in delivery, lack of skills and support for educators, safety and security issues, and a lack of at-home support and space. “Devices weren’t getting through to the right people, and just getting a device isn’t enough – what if they can’t afford to buy data?” says Moses-Stone.
While a lack of appropriate platforms is one aspect of digital exclusion, the digital divide is not just about one-off deliveries of hardware. It also comprises connectivity, sustainable access – devices and connections that are upgraded as technology progresses – and the appropriate digital skills to effectively participate online. In their report Closing the Digital Divide for Good, charities Carnegie UK and UK Committee for Unicef (Unicef UK) also argue a safe online environment is essential for digital inclusion. “Just having a laptop or even having a phone does not make you digitally included,” says Anja Nielsen, senior policy adviser, education and youth at Unicef UK.
Digital exclusion is holding back children in some of the most marginalised situations, including care leavers and looked-after children, those from disadvantaged families and living in rural areas, children with special educational needs and disabilities, Gypsy and Traveller children, and young offenders. Nominet’s Digital Youth Index, which is tracking the digital divide, found children and young people more likely to be left behind in the digital world are those without access to a laptop or desktop computer, those whose household does not primarily speak English or Welsh, those with special educational needs, receiving free school meals and being looked after by a single parent or caregiver.
“Digital exclusion maps fairly well on to other issues of exclusion – groups of young people that are more at risk of certain vulnerabilities are likely to also be at risk of digital exclusion,” says Anna Grant, senior policy and development co-ordinator at Carnegie UK, which has been working on issues around the digital divide for around a decade.
“More needs to be done to better skill all children in tech, let alone young people who are at a serious social disadvantage anyway,” says Moses-Stone. Catch 22’s Digital Edge scheme supports people from under-served communities to access a digital apprenticeship with a local employer. Young people from lower-socio economic groups are six times as likely not to have access to the internet, and 10 times as likely to not have access to a laptop, desktop or tablet compared with young people from the highest socio-economic groups, according to Ofcom.
A debate on digital inclusion took place in Westminster Hall last November and a raft of local and national initiatives have sprung up to tackle the issue. Barnardo’s, for example, is working with Vodafone to provide training for young people in digital skills and encouraging donations of secondhand digital devices. However, there are concerns the return to the classroom risks a de-prioritisation of efforts to close the digital divide.
Even if day-to-day education remains classroom-based, extracurricular and non-academic work is set to become increasingly digitally accessed, while social interactions, access to information and elements of services such as mental health support are moving online. “We were really concerned that there was going to be a cliff edge – data packages that ran out, support systems that were time bound – that caused us real concern about what was going to happen next,” says Grant.
So what can be done to tackle the issue? First, says Moses-Stone, there needs to be a more coherent understanding of what digital poverty looks like and which groups it most affects, and more of a focus on tackling the gap in digital skills. Carnegie UK and Unicef UK are calling for a long-term government strategy to tackle digital exclusion, developed in partnership with children and young people and including a monitoring and evaluation framework.
Children’s professionals also have a role to play in pinpointing who needs support, but they also need training up in digital skills themselves. “That’s where frontline services really come to the fore because they’re the ones that understand communities,” says Grant. Sharing of best practice is also important. “A lot of the solutions are there and being implemented at a local level or hyper local level – it’s just about using all of that to create a sustained response,” says Nielsen.
Unicef UK and Carnegie UK see digital inclusion as inextricably linked to children’s rights, as set out in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, including access to education, the best health care possible, access to information, and the right to have their voices heard. “Digital inclusion is not really an end goal in and of itself, it is what it enables people to do,” says Grant.
THE DIGITAL DIVIDE IN NUMBERS
- 2% of school-age children could only access the internet via a smartphone during the first lockdown
- 80% of children had constant home access to an appropriate device to enable them to connect to the internet for online learning, 13 per cent had access some of the time, two per cent rarely had access and two per cent never had access
- 2.2 million young people (15%) have a smartphone but no access to a laptop or desktop computer
- 30% of children living in households with a combined income below £20,000 do not have access to a laptop or desktop computer
- 32% of young people do not have access to home broadband
We need local and national government to work with charities and business to tackle digital divide
By Cathryn Moses-Stone, Head of policy and public affairs, Catch22
The question we should all be asking is: What happens if we don’t address the digital divide for children and young people?
Digital exclusion is now a well-documented issue. There are a multitude of well-intended and well-executed schemes to try to make sure children and young people are digitally connected and this support comes from across society, big business and government.
But it is increasingly apparent this isn’t enough. Schemes can be patchy in their reach or uptake, often excluding the groups of young people that need them the most through flaws in design or delivery. There are some brilliant projects, such as the BT Social Tariff, launched last year for households receiving universal credit and other benefits. This will make a big difference but what plugs the gap for those who don’t claim universal credit or jobseeker benefits?
There is even a conflicting sense of what the scale of the problem really is. Just because a home has broadband, that doesn’t mean it is good enough for a family of five to work, learn and live with, or they have the devices they need to do that. Youth Employment UK’s annual Youth Voice Census shows that in lockdown two in three young people studying at home shared devices with at least one other person.
All of this is before we even address the skills you need to be able use the digital world. The Nominet Digital Youth Index shows that while 90 per cent of young people have a smartphone, six million do not have home broadband or a laptop or desktop computer needed to access education or skills development, or to search or apply for jobs.
Catch22 is working with Nominet on research to try to better understand which groups of young people are being hardest hit by the digital divide and barriers to gaining digital skills for employment – as well as what works in tackling these issues and, crucially, who is accountable.
My son is two and a half. Nearly two years of home working means he knows “mummy working” involves me sitting at my laptop, typing away. He can spell his name out on my laptop keyboard. He can also unlock my phone, go straight to the BBC iPlayer app and start an episode of Postman Pat.
He is already being set up for a digital future. A future that requires us to access GP test results online, register vaccine status for travel and, fundamentally, to be able to write a CV, apply for and succeed in a job.
But what happens to the children or families that don’t have this luxury? The luxury of access, the right networks of people, know-how or education needed to develop a digital skillset and an understanding of how to stay safe online and harness all it has to offer.
We know many children and young people are tech savvy, but that doesn’t mean those skills are transferrable to the workplace or used for positive means. Growing up with digital access and literacy has to be as essential as learning how to write with a pen and paper.
Social inequality is widening because of the digital divide. The Social Mobility Commission’s 2021 State of the Nation report recognises the role of digital access and skills in supporting future social mobility and reduced inequality. That gulf will only continue to grow if we don’t build on the great work that has begun, to develop a more cohesive and targeted plan of action.
We need a centralised government strategy – one that is considered to be as fundamental as tackling poverty or joblessness. They do, after all, go hand in hand. We need a commitment from businesses to help continue to deliver devices and data to those that need it the most but cannot currently afford or access it. We need them to work with government and civil society to help develop the digital skills of our young people.
The concept of corporate parenting should be as relevant for businesses employing young people in their communities as it is for a local authority. The National Databank, which provides free Sim cards and mobile data to those affected by data poverty, was created by Virgin Media O2 in collaboration with other digital inclusion experts including Hubbub and Nominet. It is being run by the Good Things Foundation through its network of 5,000 community groups and is a brilliant example of commitment and collaboration.
We need local authorities and the third sector to be the bridge for government and business, using their understanding of the communities they support and trusted relationships to connect those that need help the most with initiatives that can help them. And we need digital skills development to be as core to the school curriculum as learning the phonetic alphabet.
My son will be okay. Other people’s children won’t. And the consequences for them, and for our society, could be devastating.
YOUNG PEOPLE CAMPAIGN TO KEEP CARE LEAVERS CONNECTED
The National House Project supports young people leaving care to live independently. Its Care Leavers National Movement is made up of care leavers from local House Projects who meet regularly to come up with new ideas to improve things for young people.
In February 2020, the group discussed care leaver support packages, with many mentioning difficulties in affording WiFi. “By the time we next met, we had gone into lockdown and the world relied on WiFi, so our discussion came into stark focus, as the young people couldn’t keep in touch with a lot of important services,” says young people’s participation and development worker Rosie Blackett.
The National House Project was able to equip the 250 or so young people taking part in its projects with data connectivity and smart phones for the first three months of lockdown. “Then the government started offering devices but there were difficulties – there was only so much data on the routers allocated, the same laptops were offered to five- and 18-year-olds with no differentiation, many of the laptops had settings which meant you couldn’t use Google Chrome, for example,” explains Blackett.
The group reached out to charities like Catch22 and the Care Leaver Covenant and signed up around 30 organisations to the Keeping Care Leavers Connected Campaign, which lobbied nationally and locally for digital support for care leavers.
In March 2021, Islington Council became the first local authority in the country to commit to giving all care leavers 12 months of free WiFi. “It was the right thing to do,” says Brenda Amisi-Hutchinson, service manager for independent futures at Islington’s Care Experienced Young Person Service. “Thinking about our corporate parenting duties, it is important to us to offer what a reasonable parent would offer.” Other councils are also showing an interest.
While there is a lot going on to tackle the digital divide, care leavers can fall through the gaps says Blackett. “When we talk about the digital divide, we’re often referring to young people in education but many care leavers are not in education, employment or training.”
For care leavers, who may have lacked stable, long-term relationships, the internet is vital to keep in touch with friends and family as well as accessing services. “Whether it’s paying utility bills, doctors’ appointments, accessing counselling support or social workers and personal advisors keeping in touch through WhatsApp, everything is online,” says Blackett.
Triggered by the need to connect to young people during the lockdown, the National House Project has launched an online support platform for care leavers. Funded by the DfE, it will be rolled out to all local authorities, featuring tailored content and regional resources.
TASKFORCE TO TACKLE DIGITAL EXCLUSION IN THE CAPITAL
The Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, launched a taskforce in February 2021 to tackle digital exclusion, bringing together the public sector, charities, councils and private sector. “One of the key concerns when the country was in lockdown was the fact children couldn’t learn online, young people couldn’t search for jobs online, or communicate with their loved ones – it was one of those issues that really rose to the top of the agenda,” says London’s chief digital officer Theo Blackwell. “We wanted to address this problem in a much more co-ordinated way.”
The taskforce is mapping out the need for devices and reliable connectivity across London. “We lacked data at crucial times during the crisis that would enable us to triage need quickly,” says Blackwell. “The tech sector was responding but they faced the same challenge – they were saying ‘We can give free data but who shall we give it to?’” The London Office of Technology and Innovation has created a digital divide map of London and 24 “personas”, showing different types of people affected by the digital divide, including care leavers, and disadvantaged families. Organisations can use this information to target support most effectively.
One pilot programme is looking at the upcycling of public sector digital devices, sending them to people who need them. “Each year tens of thousands of devices that are not that old fall out of use in the public sector, police and local councils,” says Blackwell. “We’re formulating a plan to set up a London-wide campaign around this and create a sustainable mechanism for laptops not to go to the skip.”
There is also work going on with telecommunication companies to create “social tariffs” for those who can’t afford connectivity, provide training in basic digital skills and an innovation programme to identify and overcome problems, led by the London Office of Technology and Innovation. “There is still a lot more work to do around school-aged children and digital exclusion,” says Blackwell. “It’s more than just an equity thing. How can you innovate as a city when you are leaving people behind?”