Lockdown and the digital divide

Do we know how digitally excluded people are coping with the stress of lockdown?
26 May 2020

Interview with 

Liat Levita, Sheffield University; Olivia Remes, Cambridge University


cartoon image of person holding a stay at home sign


With many of us feeling the strain of lockdown, the advice I’ve seen around quite a bit is to try and keep socially connected - albeit virtually - with friends and family. Indeed, we heard all about virtual conversations earlier in the show. This is all very well, but it’s not such a realistic prospect if you don’t have regular, reliable internet access. Katie Haylor asked Sheffield University's Liat Levita, do we know much about how digitally excluded members of society are coping with psychological stress of lockdown? 

Liat - No, and that's a huge issue because it's very difficult to make contact with them. I'm talking now to representatives of the NHS who are working with children and adolescents here in Yorkshire and specifically in Sheffield, to see if we can actually get in touch with young people that are in more vulnerable situations like that, where they don't have access to technology and social networking sites and understanding how they're coping and how we can help them to cope in this kind of situation.

Of course, the digitally excluded in society aren’t just youngsters. A lack of internet-enabled equipment, meeting the cost of being online, insufficient bandwidth, coverage or low IT literacy can affect ppl at any age. Katie spoke to Cambridge University mental health researcher Olivia Remes.

Olivia - Surveys show that 22% of people in the UK don't have the digital skills for everyday life. This survey was undertaken last year. It is one of the largest studies ever done on this topic. It's the UK Consumer Digital Index Survey and it shows that almost 12 million people in the UK can't manage their money online, they're not able to find a job online. And there are 4.1 million adults in the UK that are still yet to go online. Now, some other interesting facts, 6 million people in the UK cannot turn on a device and 7.1 million cannot open an app. Now, you would think that it's usually elderly people that are offline, but actually almost half of those who are offline are under the age of 60. And also a lot of people that have low incomes are more likely to be digitally excluded.

Now, if we're looking at some of the reasons, you know, "why are there so many people that are not online? Why do we have so much digital exclusion?" Number one, it's motivation and perceived competence. Some people are not motivated to go online or they don't think that they have the confidence, they don't have what it takes to be able to navigate this online world. So sometimes it's about perception, what you think you can do. And it's very easy to change that, to change perceptions and to increase confidence. Now there are also fears around cybersecurity and fraud.

Katie - I guess there you're talking specifically about digital skills, rather than access to digital technology, which is another significant reason why some people are excluded from the digital world?

Olivia - Yeah, absolutely. So going back to the stats, there are 4.1 million people in the UK that are still yet to go online. And there are mental health implications when it comes to this.

Katie - Such as?

Olivia - Right now education has moved online. And if you're disadvantaged, you often can't access online learning. It's either "pay for the wifi or pay for the food". You know, this is what some families have been describing it as. Now education is so important for our mental health. If you are well educated, then you're less likely to get depression, to develop anxiety. And not only that, but it develops your brain and equips you with skills and it offers you opportunities. So you know, there are clear implications like that during the pandemic.

Now, other things, if you're digitally excluded, you're not able to go online to check your emails. You're not able to order groceries online, to apply for jobs or even accessing essential health guidance online, and not being able to do basic life things then this can make you very anxious. It can stress you out and it can make you depressed. It can make it hard to fall asleep at night. So you know, there are serious mental health consequences when it comes to not being able to access and to use technology.

And also for looking at accessing mental health services, the numbers show that the number of young people accessing child and adolescent mental health services has fallen by 30 to 40% since the pandemic began. Now this is because before the pandemic, a lot of these referrals for young people were made through schools and schools are closed down right now. And so a lot of children and adolescents who would need these referrals, they don't get them anymore. And sometimes these young people are stuck in very difficult situations at the moment, you know, they're living in unstable households, exposed to trauma, you know, all sorts of difficult things going on in their lives and they're not able to get the mental health help that they need. So there are several mental health implications that are tied to this.

Katie - You’re hoping to look into this topic of digital exclusion and lockdown-related mental health in a bit more detail, aren’t you? What are your plans?

Olivia - Absolutely. Our plans are to use the power of the media - especially radio, and TV would be a great add on to this as well - because, for those people who don’t go online, don’t have a computer or mobile phone, a lot of those people access traditional media. So it’s important to use those to disseminate information to educate the public about things like “how can you improve your mental health during lockdown? How can you overcome challenges?

There are some things that, as a society, we can do to target this problem of digital exclusion. Number one - public education campaigns. Raising awareness about this and about how going online is so helpful can motivate and inspire people to boost their digital skills. And better understand what steps to take to avoid things like fraud or other threats online. And the survey I was talking about, it says “people who are earlier on in their digital journey may find it more difficult to improve at first. But as capability improves, momentum increases”. So motivation follows action, and I think that’s a really hopeful message to get out there.



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