What is digital poverty?

02 February 2018

Digital poverty is a phrase you may have heard bandied about, but what exactly does it mean?

The digital age has brought endless potential for information sharing, community building and innovation. Yet across the globe, many individuals struggle to access the internet or do not possess the skills to make use of the technology. As a collective, this group are said to be suffering from digital poverty - in other words, they do not have the ability to use modern technology in the same way as others, thus setting them at a disadvantage.

Digital poverty in the UK

Digital poverty is prevalent in developing nations and those with slow economic growth, yet it is also an important issue right here in the UK.

The Poverty and Social Exclusion in the United Kingdom research project is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, and has produced a report on ‘digital exclusion' in the UK.

The report surveyed low-income taxpayers of all ages, and found that access to the internet and lack of digital literacy has led to a significant proportion of the population being digitally excluded. Factors including low income, learning difficulties, disability, ethnic origin, location, culture and language were all found to contribute to digital exclusion. The report also found those who are not computer literate found online government services difficult to access, as many of these services are increasingly moving into the digital realm.

Charity Age UK reported that over two thirds of all digital exclusion is amongst those aged 65 and over. In addition to the aforementioned factors, Age UK added that self-perceived health status and memory or ability to concentrate were further factors contributing to digital poverty in older generations. Within this age group, income is also a critical factor in internet usage - those with the lowest monthly income were over five times less likely to use the internet than those with a moderate or high income. Living alone was another factor which made an individual less likely to use the internet.

The disadvantages for individuals suffering digital poverty are clear - exclusion from communities, limited access to information and opportunities and missed opportunities to save money, amongst others. But there is a wider economic disadvantage to the community too.

Time for change

Our Chief Executive, Ricky Nicol, recently called for improvements to Scotland’s digital infrastructure to help the country keep up with its European neighbours. Nicol warned Scotland’s internet lag poses a serious risk to the economy and could cause the digital market to stagnate.

In the UK, ultra-fast fibre to the premises is heavily weighted to the London area. One of the main issues, Nicol pointed out, was the way fibre connections are marketed: “most advertised fibre connections are simply to the cabinet on the street, with outdated copper then taking over to the home or business – the equivalent of taking a plane 498 miles of a 500 mile trip, just to walk the last two at a very leisurely pace.”

However, many councils across Scotland are working hard to introduce Digital Inclusion programmes which are designed to support the delivery of enhanced broadband access. More importantly, the programmes also include ongoing training and coaching to ensure users can stay up to date with technology and make the best use of the service.

Matt Hancock, Minister for Digital, has outlined plans to improve digital infrastructure and skills in the UK, including teaching coding in schools, more funding for broadband and next generation fibre and a 5G strategy.

Although digital poverty is clearly an issue in the UK, however there appear to be plans afoot to rectify the inequality moving forward.


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