Connecting Scotland and digital exclusion
This section considers contemporary evidence about the extent of digital exclusion in th UK; the characteristics of the groups most affected, the barriers they face and the potential impacts and consequences of being digitally excluded.
Evidence from applications to Connecting Scotland and the phase 1 user surveys are drawn on to highlight how the experience of Connecting Scotland end users relates to this wider evidence.
From these data, we can see that the barriers Connecting Scotland clients face in getting online are similar to those identified in other research for the wider population in the UK. We can also see what the impact of COVID-19 restrictions on people's lives has been, for example, in terms of increased social isolation. These are close to the harms anticipated at the beginning of the pandemic and were the initial drivers for the programme. Overall, these findings give us confidence that Connecting Scotland is reaching its target population, and that the problems the programme anticipated solving were indeed real problems for people on a low income, digitally excluded and vulnerable to COVID-19.
Barriers to digital inclusion
The Office for National Statistics estimated in 2018 that 89% of Scotland's population were active 'internet users' (i.e. used in the last 3 months), and that 80% of Scots possess the 5 essential digital skills (see annex B) . While these numbers convey relatively high levels of digital literacy nationally, they conceal the experiences of particular groups at significantly higher risk of digital exclusion. Connecting Scotland takes a targeted approach to redressing this balance; providing support and devices to those most likely to be on the wrong side of the 'digital divide'. Connecting Scotland provides digital support for the following marginalised groups:
Low income households
While Connecting Scotland targets support to specific groups of people, the overarching characteristics of all end users are that they are digitally excluded and on low incomes. Most available evidence identifies cost as being the single greatest barrier to digital inclusion. In 2017, the Scottish Government estimated that a third of low income households (<£15k) had no internet access at all, while a 2018 report by Citizens Advice Scotland found that two of the three most common barriers preventing respondents from using the internet related to money; namely the cost of broadband and data. Unsurprisingly, financial barriers to digital access were more pronounced for people living in more deprived areas (as defined by the SIMD).
While only 15% of phase 1 users reported cost as a concern related to using the internet, almost 30% of respondents to the phase 1 impact survey reported that they would not be able to afford to pay for their own connection after Connecting Scotland support ends, while 22% said they didn't know what they would do. Connecting Scotland devices are provided for free so it might be that those who reported that they planned to pay for their own internet (44%) felt able to do so because of this saving and planned to keep using their device.
Phase 1 application data indicates that, for all groups on whose behalf applications were made, being on low incomes (including from social security) meant that internet connection and devices simply were unaffordable for many, as the following application extract illustrates:
"The main barrier we hear about is financial; in many cases related to income reduced by welfare reform measures. Clients in these circumstances simply do not have the funds available to them to purchase suitable digital technology or pay for an internet connection."
People aged 60+
Connecting Scotland support enables older people to connect with others to reduce social isolation and feelings of loneliness. Phase 1 of Connecting Scotland was chiefly targeted at those most vulnerable to the effects of the pandemic, including older people and disabled people (each group representing around a third of the cohort). Lack of digital skills and experience was a prevalent issue among these users responding to the welcome survey, almost half of whom were over 60: 41% of respondents to the welcome survey said that they cannot use, or would need help to use the internet, while a further 22% reported being able to use it 'with some difficulty'. This corroborates research finding that people over 65 account for the single largest proportion of 'non-users' of the internet in the UK. Furthermore, it is important to note that, among older populations, digital connectivity declines significantly with income bracket.
Application data highlights lack of skills and experience as the predominant barrier to digital inclusion, particular for older people who were shielding.
Age UK also report that living alone, and having mobility issues, are additional factors that decrease the likelihood of an older person using the internet. These are also factors that increase the likelihood of feeling lonely among over 50s. The majority of respondents to the phase 1 impact survey (51%) reported living alone.
Similarly to age, disability is a strong predictor of non-use of the internet. The Office for National Statistics reported that, in 2017, "56% of adult internet non-users were disabled, much higher than the proportion of disabled adults in the UK population as a whole, which in 2016 to 2017 was estimated to be 22%".
As well as the coincidence of disability with poverty , a chief barrier to internet use for disabled people is difficulty using devices and applications (for instance operating keyboards and mice, viewing text on a screen). While assistive technologies are available, they may be prohibitively expensive and require time and support to learn to use.
Some phase 1 applications noted that the people who support disabled people – family and/or paid carers – lack the skills to help them get online, or learn to use a device.
Access to the internet and digital devices has the potential to impact significantly on the lives of disabled people. For instance, in enabling participation in the workplace through forms of online working, and providing a means of remote civic participation. Furthermore, the devices themselves have features and applications capable of assisting with day to day tasks.
It is important to note the interdependencies of each of the barriers to internet use described here. The intersection of age, disability and income means that the tendencies outlined will vary for people within these categorisations. For instance, while disabled people are more likely to be non-users of the internet overall, the discrepancy in use between disabled and non-disabled people is minimal in the 16-24 age category. Similarly, while age is a strong predictor of non-use, there are significant differences within older age cohorts when accounting for income, with those in highest socio-economic groupings being over 3 times more likely to use the internet than those in the lowest.
The restrictions associated with COVID-19 have added to the existing barriers to digital inclusion. Almost half of the respondents to the welcome survey said that they, or someone in their household, had been advised to 'shield' at home during the COVID-19 pandemic. 41% of respondents to the phase 1 welcome survey reported that the restrictions prevented them from going online in ways that they had previously, such as using library or community centre facilities, or connecting at someone else's home.
Similarly, many people who relied on others in physical proximity to help them get online, or to go online on their behalf, were left unsupported due to physical distancing restrictions.
Effects of digital exclusion
The links between social isolation, loneliness and poor mental health are well documented and the pandemic has seen increased prevalence in mental health problems, driven in part by significant increases in people feeling lonely, and spending too much time alone.
Around half of respondents from phase 1 (45%) said their ability to keep in touch with friends or family had been limited or non-existent during COVID-19 lockdown restrictions (welcome survey).
For some people, particularly older and/or disabled people, COVID-19 has exacerbated existing isolation, with key services moving online and physical contact all but disappearing. People who lack digital skills are thus even further excluded than those that are able to replace physical contact with online communication. Research indicates that people who do not, or cannot, use the internet are "more likely to feel isolated from others."
Respondents to the phase 1 impact survey overwhelmingly agreed that internet access had helped them to cope with being at home more due to pandemic restrictions (89%).
There are several ways in which being digitally excluded can negatively impact upon a person's financial situation. For instance, without internet access, people lack the ability to shop around for cheaper products or services, adding to the so-called 'poverty premium' (additional costs incurred by people on low incomes due to their circumstances).
There are also obvious disadvantages with regards to employability for people without ready access to the internet when a majority of job advertisements and application processes are online. Even where people do have some limited online access, applications highlighted that some devices were not appropriate for employment related activities; being either incompatible with online learning platforms, not supporting certain applications, such as 'Teams', or the screen not being an adequate size to undertake employability-related tasks. Research by Citizens Advice Scotland similarly reports that, although people might have internet access through a smartphone, tasks such as filling out forms present challenges for users.
People who need to access information about, and apply for, benefits are also disadvantaged by not having adequate internet access. With a few exceptions, Universal Credit is administered entirely online and requires claimants to provide an email address, yet Citizens Advice Scotland found that people seeking advice on benefits were among the least frequent internet users.
Digital Inclusion and National Outcomes
The ubiquity of the internet and digital technology means that fostering digital inclusion is essential for enabling people to participate in social, economic and civic life. By providing access to a connection and digital support, Connecting Scotland potentially impacts upon each of Scotland's National Outcomes. These are set out in the National Performance Framework and reflect the values and aspirations of the people of Scotland.
As a programme aimed at people on low incomes who are digitally excluded, Connecting Scotland most obviously aligns with the outcome on poverty, which states that poverty is tackled by "sharing opportunities, wealth and power more equally". Online access opens up a range of goods and services unavailable to people who are digitally excluded; it also makes looking for jobs and claiming social security infinitely simpler. Links to other specific outcomes will be more pronounced in different phases of the programme. For phase 1, the most pertinent outcomes are perhaps those for 'Health' and 'Communities' as people were able, through use of their devices, to stay connected to others and keep mentally stimulated.
See Annex C for a full consideration of Connecting Scotland's contribution to realising the National Outcomes.
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