Effective policies must be truly evidence-based and informed by the growing body of research examining exactly why some social groups are less likely to engage with internet technologies than others. Digital exclusion is clearly linked to social exclusion and should be treated as part of this wider problem.
Inequalities in internet access and use persist despite policies aimed at tackling the divide, according to a University of Leicester and Monash University study…
Dr Patrick White
A study by researchers at the University of Leicester
and Monash University in Melbourne, Australia, indicates that the ‘digital divide’ in the United Kingdom is not a problem that has been overcome, and nor will it be overcome easily. The focus may have shifted, since any significant ‘digital divide’ is now largely located in patterns of use rather than patterns of access, but education, class and age continue to influence both.
The majority of UK citizens now have access to the internet at home or at work – the number of individuals who reported access to the internet at home rose from 43 per cent to 71 per cent over the years covered – but, significantly, ‘middle class’ survey respondents were three and half times more likely to be online than their ‘working class’ contemporaries.
The paper – which appeared this week in the journal Information, Communication & Society
– was co-authored by Dr Patrick White, a senior lecturer in Leicester’s Department of Sociology and Professor Neil Selwyn, from Monash’s Faculty of Education.
The researchers analysed data collected by the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education (NIACE) between 2002 and 2010 on more than 47,000 adults in the UK. Beginning with the significance of the ‘digital divide’ in modern Britain, Dr White was kind enough to address ScienceOmega.com
’s questions about the research.
Use rather than access
"Over the past 10 years, discussion of the ‘digital divide’ has shifted from concerns about ‘formal’ access to the internet to ‘effective’ use of the resources that it can provide," he explained. "The findings of this research suggest that although access to the internet has increased steadily for the past 10 years, effective use for some key activities is much less common."
Although more than 70 per cent of participants reported having access to the internet at home in 2010, less than half of the sample bought goods and services online and only around 40 per cent used the internet for banking, looking for work or accessing government or official services.
"Those using the internet for these key activities, however, were much more likely to be younger, more highly educated and employed in non-manual occupations than those who accessed these services offline," Dr White clarified. "It appears that rather than acting to reduce inequalities in society, the proliferation of internet technologies has merely reproduced existing patterns of advantage and disadvantage."
As Dr White went on to point out, many products, services and sources of information are nowadays most effectively accessed online. Indeed, some resources are unavailable to those without access to email or the web.
"The UK’s government-supported ‘Digital Champion’, Martha Lane Fox, has suggested that, in the future, online engagement would be necessary for citizenship," he said. "As services and communication continue to migrate to online environments, those without the ability to access and use the internet will be increasingly excluded from access to important resources."
A 'ceiling effect'?
Those who are excluded are likely to be, the results of the study suggest, those with lower levels of education, those over 65, and those working in manual jobs. Adults aged 65 plus were five times less likely to have home internet access, while those who had stayed in education beyond 16 were twice as likely to report access.
While access has grown steadily, trends in use have been less predictable and growth has varied between different uses. The number of people buying products and services online, for example, was relatively high in 2003 – nearly 40 per cent – but grew very little over the six years. In contrast, accessing government services online nearly doubled, from 21 per cent to 38 per cent, over the same period.
"The most important question to be addressed in the next few years is whether both access and use will continue to grow or whether there will be a ‘ceiling effect’ – a point at which growth will slow considerably or even stop," Dr White commented. "If internet access and use does not eventually become universal, the relative disadvantages faced by those who do not engage with online resources will be magnified.
"As internet use grows, those individuals and groups who are not internet users will become increasingly marginalised and risk becoming a ‘digital underclass’. While we cannot be certain about future trends, our research shows that the factors influencing internet use changed little between 2002 and 2010."
Policies for change
Since the turn of the century there have been a large number of public policy initiatives – including Computers Within Reach (2000), Wired Up Communities (2001) and Home Access (2009) – aimed at providing access to computers, with many of these targeted specifically at disadvantaged groups.
"Our research did not evaluate any of these particular programmes but our findings suggest that, in combination, the various initiatives of the past 10 years have done little to reduce the inequality of internet access and use," Dr White stated.
So, where is the government going wrong? According to Dr White, policymakers need to take into account that ‘digital exclusion’ is a problem that is both technological and social in nature. Providing access to the appropriate technology is not sufficient to engage ‘non-users’; nor is it simply a matter of providing training in specific skills. In addition, future initiatives will need to address perceptions about the relevance of internet resources to individuals and groups if they are to meet with any success.
"Effective policies must be truly evidence-based and informed by the growing body of research examining exactly why some social groups are less likely to engage with internet technologies than others," concluded Dr White. "Digital exclusion is clearly linked to social exclusion and should be treated as part of this wider problem."