As we see the COVID-19 crisis widening inequalities between those online and not, how can we ensure we are not leaving those who need us most behind?
The Spring of 2020 has been the season of online connection - Zoom parties, TikTok challenges, virtual conferences, Whatsapp groups - all have risen significantly in the past few months as we stay apart physically to keep ourselves and each other safe from the coronavirus.
According to research by Ofcom in June, the nation’s daily screen time has gone up by 32 minutes in just 6 months - reaching record levels. 7 in 10 adults are now video-chatting once a week, the largest increase in online adults aged 65+ who are typically making at least one video-call each week, increased from 22% in February 2020 to 61% by May 2020.
We have heard much about the benefits of this growth in internet usage - new skills, commute free days, lower carbon footprints - but there is a downside.
As internet users become an even larger majority we are leaving millions behind when it comes to vital information, services and social connection.
The problem with digital-as-default has been raised time and time again. Far from a luxury item a working internet connection, whether through phone, tablet or PC, has become so central to our lives, that even before the pandemic it was included in the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals.
And we’re not talking small numbers here. 7% of households - that’s nearly 2 million, have no access to the internet at all. 7.5%, that’s nearly 4 million adults have never even used the web, not once.
It’s easy to assume this is a generational issue, that older people can’t or don’t want to learn the new skills. But lockdown has exacerbated access issues for many who simply can’t afford their internet bills - often forcing them into impossible decisions about paying for wi-fi or food.
So as we see the COVID-19 crisis widening inequalities between those online and not, how can we ensure we are not leaving those who need us most behind.
As the Centre for Ageing Better recently reported:
“These people – who are already likely to be poorer, less well educated and in worse health than their peers – are at risk of being left on the wrong side of the digital divide, as more services and information move online.”
Inspiration from our members:
At our recent webinar on loneliness, we heard from one of our members the Rural Coffee Caravan in Suffolk who have revived the concept of a phone-tree to stay in touch with customers. They have also been delivering plants for people to keep and serve as a physical reminder in their homes that they have not been forgotten.
Since they are normally all about sharing coffee and tea, they also created a free, printable 'cuppa for a friend' card kit. With this people can invite a neighbor or friend for a cuppa in spirit instead of in person. This is a nice way to maintain existing connections whilst isolating but also a great way to strike up a new friendship or let someone on their own know they're being thought of.
Hospice Hope formed a partnership with another local organisation, Enrych Connect, who provide digital training to the community. Together they managed to get funding to provide a tablet loan scheme which enabled them to identify people digitally excluded and build the technology around their needs. They explored ways to get them online too, especially if WiFi was an issue. A great example of collaborative working in Leicestershire!
The Young at Heart Group in Batley, Yorkshire knew that the majority of their members have no access to the digital world and were reluctant to get involved if they provided tablets. So instead, they have been ringing all the members at least once a week and after making sure they have all they need, have time for a chat too. They also identified a need for activities and treats, so each fortnight they deliver a craft or activity package. Cream teas, flowers, pamper packs have all had a great response (unsurprisingly!)
The Connection Through Crafting Group has been bridging the digital divide by making items to express gestures of kindness to people not in the group, for example pooling their efforts and talents into making quilts for a family who sadly experienced a fire in their home. To stay in touch with members who are offline some willing volunteers have been delivering craft activities to people and having doorstep chats while they are there. Responses have been positive - members have said the activities give them a purpose and that they enjoy meeting new (and now familiar) faces.
Similarly, VASL Community Champions have been calling their members but also plan to distribute activity bags for older people who are offline including:
- puzzles and craft activities to help melt away the hours
- a treat (e.g. a plant, edible goody) to remind them that people care about their welfare
- something to encourage social interaction and shared experiences e.g. quizzes they can discuss with their telephone volunteer.
They also plan to ask for feedback about the packs, and to collect unused items. They are trying to source items locally and keep plastic to a minimum which also helps support their local community.
We heard from More Human who have been helping them to take their in person events online. Their community tool (an alternative to mainstream social media apps) is currently piloting with 4 communities in London and Wales you can read about it here.
MindWise, a mental health charity in Northern Ireland have been providing self-care kits to help new mums and young people at high risk of mental health issues feel connected when they can’t be in touch with their normal services.
- Blog and webinar series - Bridging the Digital Divide - Campaign to End Loneliness
- Research from the Centre for Ageing Better - The digital age: new approaches to supporting people in later life get online
- Blog from Joseph Rowntree Foundation - Coronavirus response must include digital access to connect us all
- Blog summarising research from University of Cambridge - "Pay the wi-fi or feed the children": Coronavirus has intensified the UK’s digital divide
- Ofcom report on internet usage in 2020 - UK’s internet use surges to record levels, 24 June 2020