Blog: Jon Boagey on digital exclusion and poverty

20 May 2016

On an average day I go through dead patches where nothing at all seems to download on my phone.  Then amazingly the wind will blow or the sun comes out and I move into zones with almost instantaneous 4G.  So in the Queen’s Speech many of us will have welcomed the plans to improve Britain’s digital infrastructure including faster broadband and better mobile phone connections.

Annoying as the bad connections are it is easy to assume that we live in a country where almost everyone is online and that young people are living the digital life.  Unfortunately we’re far from it.

Eighteen months ago the government updated its digital inclusion strategy focusing on skills and capabilities.  It took the view that training and guided support is what’s needed and for some groups this is undoubtedly the case – 53% of over 65 year olds lack digital skills compared to 6% of young people for example.

However, we are surely getting to a point where it is time for a more sophisticated model to measure young people’s digital skills.  If 94% of young people are digitally capable does this lead to complacency in our skills strategy?  How does this relate to the growing number of job vacancies in the digital sector? And are we being ambitious enough when the skills of an 18 and an 88-year old are assessed in the same way?

But there’s a deeper concern about digital inclusion and it is linked to rising poverty levels.  The JRF Minimum Income Standard (calculated by asking the public what is needed to achieve a socially acceptable living standard) now includes access to a computer and the internet because they are seen as an essential part of modern life.

It isn’t difficult to understand why on-line access is so important and what impact it can have on a young person if their family can’t afford internet access at home.  Relying on a top-up mobile is not a viable alternative.  Young people in secondary school also need access to a laptop or PC at home if they are going to do homework – surely we have gone beyond the point where this is an option?

So much of what young people do and how they interact with one another, their families and the wider world is determined by what happens on line: social media, music, film and video, games, file storage, learning, interaction with school and public services and so on.  Engaging with it now is important – but it is also an investment for the future.

Although the Queen’s Speech focused on improving the life chances of the most disadvantaged some feel that it won’t really tackle the growing levels of poverty.  Children’s charities have been good at speaking up on this but the youth sector has been less vocal.  Digital exclusion, an area where many youth organisations have projects, is perhaps one way for us to begin to address the impact of poverty on young people’s life chances.

Jon Boagey is an independent consultant and Associate Director at the NYA.  He is interested to make contact with people working on digital exclusion and poverty.