Zoe Amar: How charities are stopping the digital divide becoming a chasm

Organisations are working with the people they support to address one of the most urgent lockdown issues

This lockdown has a sense of déjà vu, but one of the most urgent issues facing the people charities support is still here.

Last year I wrote about how a lack of access to devices and data meant that many could not access life-saving health information, a school education, support services and the most basic contact with friends and family. When this lifeline is withdrawn, we are cutting people off from society.

The extent of the digital divide is shocking. According to Ofcom, 40 per cent of people in the UK are "limited or non-users" of the internet, meaning they lack the full digital skills or access needed for work, and struggle to keep in touch with friends or support their children’s learning at home.

Seven million people in the UK are offline. Up to 1.8 million children do not have access to a device at home.

I have been talking to charities to find out how their service users have been affected by this issue, and how they are tackling it. Kelly Cox, St Helens practice lead at Pause, which works with women who have experienced, or are at risk of, repeated pregnancies that result in children needing to be removed from their care, has seen the impact of the digital divide first-hand.

“Digital poverty for one woman we work with means that each month she pawns her smartphone to be able to pay her bills,” she says. “Another woman, who sold her phone to pay for food, was discharged from a crucial service for missing their Zoom calls and phone consultations.”

Cox urges charities to consider this when reviewing the services they offer. With the UK set to miss out on the 2025 'better broadband' rollout, the digital divide will be with us for years to come. It is key that we remember this as we plan what our charities’ business models look like in the future.

Helping people get online is a big challenge for charities that work with schools. Sarah Atkinson, chief executive of the Social Mobility Foundation, points out that while the government announcement on data boosts for disadvantaged children is welcome, it is disappointing “to see it limited to the school term when access over the summer to academic catch-up and to enrichment programmes is just as important".

She says: “We saw the same short-sightedness in 2020 when students on our programme had their Department for Education-loaned laptops taken away in the summer holidays, so couldn’t use them for our work experience and pre-university events."

Access to digital is not a tap we should be turning on and off. Imagine if we did the same with healthcare – there would be an outcry.

Digital adoption is only going to increase as we emerge from the pandemic. Rebuilding the economy will take years, and inequality can only worsen if people are left behind.

Russell Findlay, chief executive of Speakers Trust, which helps young people speak more confidently, warns that the long-term impact of the digital divide is a huge concern.

“The question this crisis has posed is how we can use tech to level the educational playing field, rather than tilt it into an even greater imbalance," he says.

Some of the charities I spoke to were buying the people they support devices and credit; individuals can also get help and support through the Reboot project.

In the mid-term, we need more than quick fixes. Charities need to come together to tackle this issue and lobby government and business for change.

Helen Milner, chief executive of digital inclusion charity the Good Things Foundation, told me: “Together, we can all work to fix the digital divide, levelling-up opportunity and paving the way for the post-Covid-19 economic recovery.”

If we do not take action on this, then the scale of the problems facing charities and the people they support will grow. The digital divide will become a chasm.

Zoe Amar is the founder of the digital and marketing consultancy Zoe Amar Digital @zoeamar

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