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Reasons for digital exclusion
The importance of digital equality
Today computer skills and knowledge of the internet can connect people to new and better jobs, open up the opportunity of flexible working from home, cheaper forms of communication and social interaction, to community infrastructures and government services, improved access to learning opportunities and provide access to more convenient and often cheaper products and services online.
Digital inequality matters because those without access and the right combination of access, skills, motivation and knowledge are missing out on important areas of the digital world.
This doesn’t just impact on individual lives but on families, communities, increasingly on political process, democracy, public services and the economic and social health of the nation as a whole.
Research shows a clear correlation between digital and social exclusion. This means that those already at a disadvantage and arguably with the most to gain from the internet are the least likely to be making use of it and further disadvantaged by not using it.
It may sound like a Catch-22 but its actually an opportunity. If digital and social exclusion are inter-related, positive action on one front can affect the other and greater equality be the result
— Helen Milner, Managing Director of UK Online Centres
Source: Understanding digital inclusion (2007)
Measuring the divide
Narrowing the digital divide risks deepening the severity of exclusion. The images above show that as more people become digitally included (figure 1) the fewer remaining excluded people are in danger of falling further behind the rest of society (figure 2). This means they are likely to suffer from greater inconvenience, higher cost of living, less integration into society and perhaps less chance of finding employment.
It is therefore important to consider not just the width of the digital divide - the number of people included and excluded, but also the depth of the divide - the intensity of the exclusion for those who remain ‘divided’.
What are the barriers to getting online?
Affordability of equipment or usage. Even though prices for ICT equipment and connection time will almost certainly continue to decrease, BT (2004) believe that cost will remain a significant barrier for some excluded groups, even in the long term. Pricing structures, as well as price itself, has an effect on take-up.
For instance, the rapid adoption of mobile phones even by low-income groups is probably largely as a result of more flexible and non-excluding pricing structures (such as ‘pay-as-you-go’ packages) than of
traditional fixed-line telephone services. The contrast with internet adoption – for which take-up among low income groups has been much lower – is also interesting. Research has shown that non-users of the internet estimate the cost of use to be far higher than it really is.
Lack of time to take training courses, or to travel to an internet café or UK online centre – or prioritising other activities over learning how to make use of technologies.
Lack of training or support in learning how to use a personal computer or the internet.
Low literacy levels - People are sometimes more willing to admit to a lack of knowledge about computers than to illiteracy. On the other hand, evaluation of UK online centres has found that
engaging with computers and the internet has enabled people to identify and discuss literacy and numeracy difficulties which they had never addressed before.
Disabilities which may make accessibility devices or improvements in design necessary in order to make effective use of technologies.
Poor usability of interfaces – such as relevant websites – may also be an issue preventing effective use.
Lack of interest or perceived need - Large numbers of people report that the reason they do not use the internet is that they have no need for it, or no interest. These numbers have fallen as the numbers of people using the internet have increased. But, as of February 2006, the ONS still found that 39% of non-internet users (representing 13% of the total adult population) said that they do not want to, need to, or have an interest in using the internet. However, in the Social Exclusion Unit’s 2005 report 'Inclusion Through Innovation', it was revealed that socially excluded people, including older people, have engaged enthusiastically with some forms of ICT – mainly the telephone.
Cost/benefit ratio too high - Even if some benefit or interest in using the internet is assumed, it may be judged that the benefit is too small to justify what may be a high-value investment in computer equipment. Again, more affordable pricing schemes and flexible technologies may change this.
Lack of appropriate content - Provision of stimulating and/or useful content is crucial in attracting new users to ICT. The bias of existing content towards the social, cultural and economic priorities of earlier-adopters may act as a considerable dis-incentive to people trying to engage in new technologies.
3 Skills and confidence
Skills - Use of all ICT, and particularly of a traditional personal computer, is not straightforward, and may not be intuitive. The Skills for Life survey in 2003 found that large proportions of the population were not able to complete a series of basic functions using a Windows-based computer – even among regular computer users. In the consultations conducted as part of the Inclusion Through Innovation study, more respondents cited lack of training or skills as a problem which may prevent some groups from benefiting from ICT than those who cited lack of access.
Confidence in ability - Particularly a problem among those who do not have immediate family or friends who are internet users, and so do not get the help and guidance which many new users find valuable.
Concerns about security or undesirable material being available on the internet. This may affect both take-up and willingness to transact effectively among existing users. The Oxford Internet Survey in 2005 found that, among existing users, majorities are concerned about viruses (82% of computer users), unpleasant experiences when using email (60% of email users), and putting their privacy at risk (54% of internet users). Non-users have also been reported to have similar (though less specific) concerns – although also often recognising that these are factors to be aware of, rather than insurmountable barriers to internet use.
'Understanding digital inclusion' - Freshminds & UK Online Centres (2007)
Inclusion through Innovation: Tackling social exclusion through new technologies ODPM (2005)