National Survey Reveals Pandemic Risks Worsening Digital Divide

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Around a third of adults in the UK think more should be done to improve people's ability to use online technology, a new survey suggests.

The impact of coronavirus pandemic risks worsening the digital divide, with some, particularly younger people, saying a lack of digital skills has impacted their mental health and wellbeing during the outbreak, according to the study.

The survey was commissioned by BT to coincide with Get Online Week (19-26 Oct), an annual event to improve people’s digital skills and make sure that everyone can enjoy the benefits of being online.

Ada Mattock with BT Cardiff contact centre operations manager Richard James

Good Things Foundation, organiser of Get Online Week, defines basic online skills as being able to do things such as use an internet search engine, send and receive emails and use online forms.

Lloyds Bank UK Consumer Digital Index 2020 estimates that 9 million people in the UK can’t use the internet or their device without help, and 4.7 million people don’t have any digital skills at all. The pandemic has compounded this, leaving people without online skills or access even more isolated than the rest of the population.

The survey suggests the impact on people’s mental health and wellbeing due to barriers accessing technology has been experienced most by younger people. 40% of 16-24 year olds and 43% of 25-30 year olds said their wellbeing had been impacted due to a lack of digital skills or online access during lockdown, compared to 10% of over 55s.

During the pandemic, access to online services have become more important than ever, with millions working from home, video calls helping people keep in touch and internet shopping proving a lifeline for many.

According to the survey, however, more than 15% of 16-24 year olds reported not being confident doing their weekly food shop online, and 20% said they weren’t sure they could pay their bills online.

With the impact of coronavirus set to continue, 28% of people admitted to feeling more anxious about staying in touch with friends or family or feeling isolated due to a lack of digital skills. Once again, younger people felt most vulnerable, with almost half (47%) worrying the most, compared to 13% of over 55s.

When it comes to financial barriers to accessing online technology, the research found more than a quarter of people worry they will not be able to afford new technology if their devices break, including 27% 16-24 year olds who were concerned the most.

In terms of online safety, over 50s were the most assured when it came to their online activity with half saying they are confident in making strong passwords for their online accounts, and 47% making sure they do not give any personal information online. This is in contrast to 16-24 years olds who were much less cautious, at 25% and 32%, respectively. Despite this, 21% of the UK worry about their online accounts being hacked.

Professor Kerensa Jennings, BT Group Director of Digital Impact, said:

“Now more than ever, we need to help improve digital literacy and access to technology, for everyone. While we don’t know how the situation will evolve, our free Skills for Tomorrow programme is helping ensure people can have access to the right resources to learn vital skills to help them stay connected during this period. Even small improvements can empower people with the confidence to order their groceries online or stay in touch with loved ones. We all have a part to play in ensuring everyone has access to the technology they need.”

Helen Milner OBE, Chief Executive of Good Things Foundation, said:

“This new research highlights just how critical events like Get Online Week are to improve digital literacy across the UK. It also shows that all age categories are at risk of being isolated during lockdown due to poor digital skills, even the generation we consider ‘digitally native’. For the sake of the 9 million people who struggle to use the internet independently, it’s time for us all to work together to Fix the Digital Divide. Our economy will benefit by £1.92 billion if we invest in a Great Digital Catch Up, supporting 4.5 million people to cross the Digital Divide. With help from the government, and by coming together as a community, we can all take responsibility to ensure our loved ones are ready to face extended self-isolation and lockdown measures in the coming months, so no one is left behind.”

BT is encouraging people to visit BT Skills for Tomorrow which is giving 10 million people the skills they need to make the most of life in the digital world. It’s completely free and designed to help everyone – from school children and teachers, parents and families to businesses and jobseekers – and anyone who needs support getting online to make the most of life.