The Digital Divide: The effects of COVID-19 on digital inequality

One of ELBA’s main purposes as a charity is to tackle inequality in east London and beyond, and we work with a wide range of business partners and supporters who share the same aim. As we move on from the first stage of the COVID crisis, we have been thinking about how inequality looks in this next phase of the economic and community response. We are all aware of the disproportionate impact of the virus on people from Black and Asian backgrounds, and there is a pertinent question about the degree to which such health inequalities existed before COVID, as they surely did, and whether COVID has just brought them into sharper relief. Likewise with digital inequality – has COVID merely highlighted the divide that already existed, or has it widened the gap?

Two main groups have been picked out as particularly affected by digital inequality – the young, and their ability to study away from school, college and university; and the elderly, with those who have no digital capacity being rendered even more isolated and lonely during lockdown. There is also a further group – people who are unable to work from home, for a variety of reasons – such as over-crowding, noise or lack of suitable space. These people may now be excluded from a whole slew of jobs where employers have decided that they will exclusively be fulfilled by employees working from home.

Digital inequality hits in three ways – access to or ownership of devices, broadband connections, and skills.

While 79% of UK adults own and use smartphones, using a phone to access social media etc is a world away from using one to learn at home, to have meaningful social video calls and from being able to use one to earn a living remotely. As we saw in lockdown, many families do not have access to laptops, tablets and PCs at home – only 57% of households have a laptop – and as a result, disadvantaged children and students were less able to engage in remote study. Ownership of suitable devices among the elderly is much lower.

Having a device is only the first step; being able to connect to the internet at suitable bandwidth for full access to learning materials and video calling is another. While internet access in theory is available to 95% of UK homes, affording a subscription is another barrier in itself.

Finally, there is the ability to use the digital tools and devices. This is an issue that particularly impacts on the elderly. 36% of people over 65 are off-line – either lapsed or never users. Over 79% of all digital exclusion is among those aged 65 and over.

So there is this triple whammy of devices, connections and skills, which pre-existed before COVID. But the pandemic has had the consequence of throwing us all much more on-line – for work, access to goods, connections with friends and family, health appointments, entertainment – pretty much every aspect of life has become more digital. So those who are digitally excluded now face deeper impacts in learning, health, social wellbeing and employment opportunities.

ELBA are not the only ones to be exploring what can be done. Local authorities, schools, colleges, charities are all considering how the divide can be narrowed. Our particular angle is the contribution that business can make. How can we harness the ingenuity, ideas, people power and other resources of business? We have a team of business volunteers starting this week on an intensive eight-week programme to come up with ideas and solutions which we can then feed in alongside the work of others.

What has been your experience? What impacts of digital inequality have you observed? We’d love to hear your views.

Do you think COVID has widened the digital divide, or merely brought it more to our attention?

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