It’s not OK that millions of people are still excluded from participating in our digital economy.

Lloyds Banking Group has today published their annual Consumer Digital Index – and there are some really encouraging findings. There has been a significant increase in the number of people who are online – 1.5 million more people are now online, meaning that 95% of UK adults have used the internet in the past three months at least once. But 14.9 million people still have very low digital engagement – meaning the group of people we usually call ‘limited users’ is still far too high. People in this group may shop online, some of it on mobile phones, but they tend not to use email or online banking. And 2.6 million people are completely offline, 39% of whom are under the age of 60 busting the idea that all offline people are older. 

It’s clear that we are closing the digital divide – but perhaps more importantly, people are enjoying being online. New data from the report shows that 60% of people feel they have had “more positive times throughout the pandemic because of their use of digital tools,” and almost half (49%) say the Internet “helps them manage and improve their physical and mental health” – showing the critical role that digital has played throughout the pandemic and beyond.

The data also shows really encouraging signs for online banking and fintech use – which are vital for building sustainable finances. Over 2.8 times more people are now using fintech services compared with 2020, whilst smartphone banking usage has increased 10% since 2020. We know that these services can be life-changing – ensuring millions more people are able to manage their finances helping to tackle financial exclusion.

However, we can’t take for granted that getting online is a silver bullet for financial inclusion. The report shows that digital engagement alone does not lead to increased savings, and that the internet can actually lead to overspending. To ensure people spend and save responsibly, we need financial inclusion support to be embedded in digital inclusion programmes, ensuring that people can manage their money easily and effectively.

It’s particularly striking that digital inclusion is not a fixed state. Just as people can go from being digitally excluded to digitally included, the reverse is also true. Whilst 20% of people with high digital engagement in 2020 increased their digital engagement in the past year, a similar proportion (21%) fell out of the ‘very high’ digital engagement group. And of those whose engagement has fallen, they have disproportionately been older and less affluent. 

This absolutely reflects what we see at Good Things Foundation. People tend to come to our partners for support when they need help with a specific task such as getting a job, connecting with family, or applying for benefits. Making sure people stay engaged after they’ve achieved that task can be the tricky bit – but our model of learning encourages people to explore, to try out new things, and to see how else the internet can benefit them. As Lloyds say themselves, this is the importance of a “trusted face in a local place”. Once people experience these benefits, we know they’re more likely to carry on learning. 

There are other worrying signs in Lloyds Bank’s report today which suggest that those with disabilities or impairments are being left behind. The number of people using assistive tech has fallen over the past year, and it is concerning that this may mean they aren’t able to get online as easily. This is all the more reason for the Government to commit to a cross-cutting approach to digital inclusion, with inclusive design at its heart.

Issues like data poverty can further complicate the picture. If you’re faced with a choice of food or connectivity, which would you be more likely to choose? It might seem obvious. But connectivity is no longer a nice to have, it’s a need to have. Throughout the pandemic, feedback from our fantastic and unique hyperlocal network of community organisations doing digital inclusion (the Online Centres Network) has highlighted to us the critical importance of the internet for connecting with friends, family, and colleagues. Without connectivity, people can be left isolated, lonely, and struggling to support the health of themselves or their families.

Lloyds CDI data suggests that data and device affordability is a real issue – with almost a third of those offline (31%) saying cheaper mobile data would motivate them to get online. Through the Data Poverty Lab (supported by Nominet) we’ll be exploring sustainable solutions to this problem. We’re aiming to draft a range of proposals for policymakers to ensure everyone has sufficient, private, and secure access to mobile or broadband data. And through Everyone Connected, we’re helping to get devices and connectivity into the hands of thousands – with the digital skills support they need to get up and running.

On this point, I believe it’s critical that everyone can access support for digital skills in their local area – and the public agree. Seven times more people want to be able to access local support, compared with 2020; and we understand why. Our network of hyperlocal community partners is vital – the network helps people to get online, improve their digital skills, access devices and data projects, and lead better lives in every community across the UK. 

Today’s report offers some really promising findings, but also some worrying signs. If the Government is committed to levelling up – as it should be – it needs to embed digital inclusion at the heart of the Levelling Up White Paper. We need to see a strong digital strategy which works for everyone, ensuring the shift to digital is truly inclusive. And we need investment – in community partners, in local people, to get millions more online and to fix the digital divide.

Original source – Helen Milner

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