The internet is now described by many people as ‘the fourth utility’ while having access to the web is increasingly seen as a basic facet of 21st century life. But nearly two-thirds of people aged 65 and over are not online. This is a major problem. Why? Well, digital technology often has the potential to help address, or at least mitigate, a number of the social and economic disadvantages faced by some older people. But as the technology gets better and faster every year, the divide between those who are connected and those who are not grows wider. This means that existing inequalities are rapidly becoming even more entrenched.
So, how can we fix this problem?
Our starting point must be that digital exclusion is an issue that society as whole must seek to address. The number of people in the UK – a fifth of all households – who are offline, combined with the growing omnipotence of digital communication means that the challenge is too great and the issues too important for it to be siloed-off as a niche or specialist issue. All public and voluntary organisations working with those who are digitally excluded have a vital role to play – and I would suggest that there are 7 steps that they can take to get involved:
1. Show leadership
Make addressing digital exclusion a priority and have a clear strategy. Digital connectivity pervades all aspects of public policy and all social and economic interventions can be ‘digital-proofed’ to assess to what extent they impact on those who are not connected and what opportunities they provide to help those who are offline to get access. Read about the strategy adopted in Liverpool.
A whole range of different organisations have a role to play in tackling digital exclusion. The work that is required to help connect the final fifth needs to go to where people are and engage with them in their everyday life. This means that housing associations, health and social care providers, charities, community groups, post offices and libraries have all got a big contribution to make. But each partner needs to play to their own strengths and find a way of engaging that works for them. Read about how Mersey Police got involved in digital inclusion.
3. Have a plan
The offline population is diverse and dispersed. Many organisations want to help tackle digital exclusion, which is positive. But if there isn’t a clear plan about how this will be done then there is a risk of both duplication and of people ‘falling between the gaps’. Read about the joined up approach adopted by The Wheatley Group in Glasgow.
4. Focus on the person not the tech
Every person has a hobby or interest, and there is content online related to every hobby. Conversations with people about going online must start with their interests – not with the technology. Read about how Digital Fife build on people’s involvement in community groups as a way of helping them to get connected.
5. Be holistic
For most people who are not online there is no single barrier which is preventing them from getting connected – issues of cost, confidence, motivation and skills are all highly relevant. An approach to helping people get online must address all of these issues otherwise it is unlikely to succeed. Read about the range of methods being used by Leeds Federated Housing Association.
6. Involve communities
The internet is by definition a method of social engagement. It therefore makes sense that activities to help people get connected should be social too. Read how Sunderland have put the community at the heart of their digital inclusion programme.
7. Make it fun
The internet brings great social and economic benefits but it should be a source of enjoyment too – and as we’re still in the early phases of learning how to help the final fifth get connected we should not be afraid to be innovative and make it fun. Read about the scheme in Wiltshire where Digital Champions work with their neighbours to help them get online.
Acting Head of Policy
Carnegie UK Trust