Never in my professional or academic career has my field of study and work been more relevant than over the last seven months.
For the last decade I have been committed to playing my part in addressing digital inequality. I have highlighted, in both practice and study, the connection between digital inequality and wider social inequalities. I have examined how digital access, connectivity, skills and digital understanding are a crucial part of an individual’s ability to enjoy culture, leisure, and entertainment online, how these assets can open doors to address social isolation, and can unlock opportunities in education and employment.
I have also considered how the internet, instead of acting as an enabler, can also act as a further barrier for specific groups of individuals (older people, disabled people, people in lower socio-economic groups) who become ‘locked out’, unable to access basics such as food, shelter, education, employment and connection, all of which are now underpinned by digital access.
And Covid 19 has made all of this so much more urgent.
The ability to use the internet has literally become a matter of life and death.
While research has always linked digital and health inequalities, emerging Covid literature highlights how this has played out in the pandemic. Various papers consider the importance of the internet in terms of ‘managing’ the pandemic, such as the dissemination of critical information at scale (Nguyen et al., 2020), public health measures such as contact tracing (Arakpogun et al., 2020), e-health and virtual medical appointments (Khilnani, Schulz and Robinson, 2020).
Van Deursen notes that ‘people who are already relatively advantaged are more likely to use the information and communication opportunities provided by the internet to their benefit in a health pandemic’ (van Deursen, 2020) which translates in the current context to a relationship between material wealth, social capital and the ability to access both healthcare (by and large now delivered digitally) and safe health information. Each of the articles cited above refer to the impact of the ‘digital divide’ on health and wellbeing and all recognise the vital importance of digital citizenship if we are to keep each other alive.
Digital is not just a ‘nice to have’.
My research takes a participatory action approach, and this has meant I was lucky enough to be well positioned to be of use, and quickly, to our truly incredible partners in the third sector. I have been part of the network delivering Connecting Scotland, the emergency digital inclusion response undertaken by Scottish Government, and driven by SCVO , which is delivering devices, data and digital skills to 50,000 individuals who are digitally excluded. Building on existing research, and our collaborative work with digital champions, we are working together to address digital inequality.
In a teeny tiny way, I have also able to support the humbling work of Simon Community Scotland, whose staff have worked relentlessly and tirelessly since the very beginning of the pandemic to support individuals experiencing homelessness to find a safe place to live with access to the help they need. The Get Connected project , an expansion of our Get Digital work, again delivered devices, data and skills support through digital champions to people who needed that help during lockdown.
This project has had significant impact in a relatively short period of time. All of the people receiving devices self-assessed as having low or no digital skills, and yet within a few weeks, and with support, all participants were able to reach family and friends, to access safe health information and medical help, as well as developing a range of other skills. Outreach workers were able to stay in regular contact and thus able to provide continuous holistic care and support at a time when this was perhaps never more needed.
I have also worked with colleagues at Govan Housing Association who again have lead the way in their community in addressing urgent digital need, as well as food distribution, health and wellbeing support, and working evenings and weekends to do whatever is needed. Again, digital inclusion is embedded in a wider, holistic approach.
It has been a difficult, challenging time for all of us, but for many people who are unconnected, who are offline and do not have the digital skills they need, it has been even more scary, lonely and with higher risk to physical and mental health.
We must continue our work to address digital inequality as part of pandemic response, and beyond.
To follow participatory research work with colleagues in the third sector over on Twitter, please follow:
My blog is over here.