Government Study Examines the UK Digital Divide in Internet Use

computer user

The Office for National Statistics has published an interesting new study that explores the scale of digital exclusion in the UK, which examines the reasons why around 5 million adults (10%) still aren’t using the internet. The familiar issues of disability, sickness, lack of skills and limited desire all come into play. No quick fixes.

We should point out that this research – Exploring the UK’s digital divide – doesn’t consider the quality or type of internet connectivity (broadband ISP speed, usage allowances, mobile plans etc.) and instead only looks at access in a very general way. In that context “internet non-users” merely refers to those who have never used the internet or last used it more than 3 months ago (c.10% of the population fall into this group, down from 14.8% in 2014).

Although the number of internet non-users has been declining, in 2018 some 58% (3.1 million) of these were women. Meanwhile London was found to have the lowest proportion of internet non-users (7.0%), while Northern Ireland continues to have the highest proportion (14.2%), followed by the North East of England (12.1%).

ons 2018 uk internet non-use

Understanding why so many people are still classified as “non-users” is important, not least due to the Government’s on-going drive to get everybody accessing services digitally (Digital by Default) and because the platform provides many benefits. For example, internet users tend to see 3-10% higher earnings due to acquiring digital skills and they’re more employable.

Similarly savings (time and money) from things like online shopping, banking and utility service switching all have a role to play. Likewise basic digital skills have been found to enable people to connect and communicate with family, friends and the community 14% more frequently.

Who are the internet non-users and why?

* Adults over the age of 65 years have consistently made up the largest proportion of the adult internet non-users, and over half of all adult internet non-users were over the age of 75 years in 2018.

* Across all age groups, disabled adults make up a large proportion of adult internet non-users. In 2017, 56% of adult internet non-users were disabled, much higher than the proportion of disabled adults in the UK population as a whole, which in 2016 to 2017 was estimated to be 22%.

* Among those of “working age“, the economically inactive due to long term sick leave or disability are the most likely to be internet non-users. The proportion of non-internet users that fell into this group was 22.3%, which is way above any other grouping (e.g. 3% of non-users are self-employed, 2.7% are unemployed and 3.3% are just generally inactive).

* Only 12% of those aged between 11 and 18 years (700,000) reported having no internet access at home from a computer or tablet, while a further 60,000 reported having no home internet access at all. Of those in this age group, 68% who did have home internet access reported that they would find it difficult to complete school work without it.

* In 2011, there were wide disparities in recent internet use among the different ethnic groups, however, in 2018, this gap had narrowed. This is particularly the case for adults of Bangladeshi ethnicity. In 2011, 31.4% of them were internet non-users, higher than the figure for UK adults overall (20.3%). In 2018, the figure for Bangladeshi internet non-users had dropped to 8.0%, a figure that is now lower than for the UK overall (10.0%).

* People who live alone are less likely to have an internet connection at home, than their peers. In 2018, 9% of households with a single adult aged between 16 and 64 years did not have an internet connection, compared with only 1% of households with two adults aged between 16 and 64 years. Similarly, 41% of households with a single adult aged 65 years and over had no household internet connection compared with 13% of households with two adults, at least one of whom was 65 years or older.

* There is a regional variation in basic digital skills. In 2018, Wales had the lowest proportion of people with all five basic digital skills (66%) and the highest proportion of those with zero basic digital skills (19%), while the reverse was true for the South East of England (86% and 5% respectively).

From the above we can tell that age, skills (lack of), disability, sickness and gender all have a role to play. We should point out that age and disability often go hand in hand, for example poor eyesight is something that happens to a lot of us as we get older and past a certain point it can make internet access extremely difficult.

However, when UK households were asked in 2017 to give reasons for not having internet access at home, some 64% said they didn’t need it, while only 20% identified a lack of skills as a problem and disability came way down at the bottom.

ons 2018 uk reasons for not having internet by household

The lack of inclination to go online is particularly prevalent among the older age groups. In 2018, 84% of those over the age of 60 years said that nothing could help them get online. Similarly, 38% of disabled people who are not using the internet reported that the internet does not interest them.

ONS Statement

While digital inclusion has been increasing in recent years and there are some clear benefits for both the individual and wider society, some people remain digitally excluded. This is particularly the case among certain groups, including older people and disabled people as well as potentially those not living in private households and who are unlikely to be well reflected in this analysis.

The barriers to digital inclusion suggest part of the education for digital skills may need to start by highlighting the benefits of being online and overcoming any apprehension to engagement. However, the fact that people remain digitally excluded also highlights the importance of ensuring that non-digital alternatives continue to be made available to enable everyone to participate fully in society.

Ultimately the transition to a true digital society is one that will take time and some people will always require offline support in order to achieve what society asks or expects of us. In the meantime nobody should ever be forced to use the internet, even if not going online could leave some people at a disadvantage (savings, shopping etc.).

In any case there are no quick fixes for overcoming this challenge and the ONS’s report is a good complement to last month’s study from the Broadband Stakeholder Group (BSG), which examined the same topic (here).

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