What causes digital exclusion?

lyndsey burton
By Lyndsey Burton

laptop field

WHILE the number of us getting online each year is increasing, around 5.3 million UK adults - just over 10% of the adult population - have still never used the internet, according to the Office of National Statistics.

Those left behind by the advances of the digital age can find it harder to find a job or access Government services and, according to the Low Incomes Tax Reform (LITR) Group, they "are in danger of falling even further behind in future."

It should be clear then, why it's so important to get online - but effectively tackling the issue means knowing what exactly is causing it, and who's most likely to be affected.

The factors behind digital exclusion

There are four main factors that create digital exclusion.


Most of us are so used to being online that we might not remember what a big deal it was getting on the internet for the first time. Many younger people today have been online almost from the word go but the older or more financially disadvantaged we are, the less likely we are to have quick and easy access.

Not only do we need a computer but the infrastructure to go with it, and home broadband can be expensive for those on tight budgets, or who have never considered having more than a phone line before. Mobile phone data is even more pricey.

Of the 10.2% of UK adults who weren't online in 2016, 9% said it was because equipment costs were too high, and another 9% cited access costs as the obstacle.

Not understanding the benefits

"I've managed so long without it I just don't want or need [the internet]."
- Royal National Institute for the Blind (RNIB) research.

This statement will undoubtedly sound familiar to many people. One of the biggest problems leading to digital exclusion is that people simply don't see the benefits that the internet could afford them - almost 60% of those who aren't online say they simply don't need it or see the point of it.

This is particularly the case with older people - and yet the elderly who do use the internet frequently can easily explain the reasons it can be very much worth it.

"To get in touch with my grandson in Australia," one respondent to a LITR survey said.

Another person in the same survey used the internet to download books for her Kindle. She used an eBook because, like many elderly people, her eyesight is impaired.

One elderly gentleman (in the 75-84 age bracket) told Age UK: "If I did not have internet access I would feel totally lost. I... could not manage my affairs so easily without it."

Access to information relating to health, benefits, and services for the elderly would bring obvious and direct gain to many of the older people who choose not to engage with modern technology.

These are just some of the benefits of getting online, no matter how old or young we are.

A lack of skills and confidence

According to the ONS, 21% of people who aren't online say they simply don't have the skills; a figure backed up by research from Go ON UK and the Tinder Foundation, which suggests that in 2014 around 23% of people lacked what they called "basic digital skills":

Learning any new skill can be daunting enough without worrying about the consequences if we get something wrong online: news stories of fraudsters scamming people, or of data breaches putting our details at risk can act as a serious deterrent.

That's why Go ON UK consider knowing how to move around and use the web securely one of the most basic online skills we can have.

Who is digitally excluded?

These barriers affect different people to different degrees, with the result that some groups are much more likely to be digital excluded.

We can probably all name the biggest one.

The elderly

As those of us who've lived and worked with the internet get older, the number of people aged 65 and over used to being online is increasing: the number of those classed as "retired" who've used the internet within the past three months has risen by 19% since 2011.

But most graphs of the proportion of people using the internet still show a significant drop when we reach this age bracket suddenly above the age of 65, an effect sometimes known as "the communications cliff":

internet activities by age group, 2016

internet activities by age, ons

SOURCE: Office for National Statistics internet access - households and individuals 2016 Available here.

Older people are also the group mostly likely to actively choose to avoid technology, even when they've experienced some of what the internet can offer: around 5-6% of over-65s say they've used it at some point before but haven't bothered within the past three months.

However, it is not only choice that can exclude elderly people. Many also suffer from age related disabilities.

People with disabilities

There are about 10 million disabled people in the UK, 18% of the UK population. The ONS estimate that 25% have never used the internet, and 50% of people who could be described as lapsed users - who have used it in the past but no longer bother - are disabled.

The substantial majority have some form of "hidden" disability: approximately 828,000 adults have a learning disability, for example, and a high proportion of this group are among the digitally excluded.

Perceived inability

Just as with elderly people that may be partly because of a perceived inability to access the internet.

And, for some, those barriers are very real: "... having difficulties with vision, hearing, mobility, cognitive processing, or literacy often limits their access to much of today's digital economy," LITR say.

There are continual improvements being made to accessibility, in terms of computers themselves, the software available online to make using them easier, and the standards used to create accessible content on the internet itself.

Greater education and awareness of these services would go a long way towards eliminating digital exclusion for people with disabilities.

This would help people find and be able to make use of the free accessibility software that exists.

However, it's worth remembering that for some, the assistive technology hardware they require can be much more expensive than the basic equipment needed for a standard connection.

The financially disadvantaged

A combination of these factors can mean that those who are at a social and financial disadvantage are more than three times as likely to be digitally excluded as other people.

Go ON UK and the Tinder Foundation found that the higher our personal incomes, the higher the chance we have basic digital skills: 87% of people classed as being in social grade ABC1 have basic skills compared to just 65% of those considered to be in the C2DE group.

Just 57% of local authority tenants have basic digital skills, compared to 85% of those who rent from a private landlord and 89% of mortgage holders (both of which tend to require higher incomes), and 73.8% overall when looking at household tenure.

As mentioned at the beginning this can lead to something of a vicious circle, with those prevented from getting online missing out on information and access to resources and assistance that could help prevent them from "falling even further behind in future".

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