Digital by default
Newly released stats from the ONS show at the beginning of 2020, nearly a fifth of over 65s hadn’t used the internet within the last three months.
Our Digital Officer, Yehia Nasr, says the move to a more digital world during the COVID-19 pandemic has its benefits but we still need to bridge the digital divide to ensure we all have good later lives.
I'd like to think that I'm not addicted to my phone or the internet, but the list of things that I'd prefer to give up instead of having to go a week without WiFi is embarrassingly long. And I'm sure I'm not alone.
You don't need me telling you how integral the internet is to our lives and how seamlessly integrated it is into our daily routines. Emails, social media, news, entertainment, banking, shopping, the list goes on.
And with the COVID-19 pandemic leading more of us to use the internet, more often and for more reasons, it has also accelerated the need for public services to be primarily online, or 'digital by default'. In the last few months most of us have experienced GP services, exercise classes, social clubs and gatherings through virtual means almost exclusively. So much so that 'Zoomed out' became an informal term to describe the fatigue of online meetings. And it makes sense of course. GPs and patients alike, for example, don't need to worry any more about risk of contracting illness or travelling into surgeries, among other reasons.
But in recent weeks we've seen a pushback on plans to make online GP clinics the norm going forward. Among the concerns is that we're neglecting those who don't have access to the internet.
When we as a nation strive to make everything online and digital by default, we simply mustn't forget those struggling to get or stay online.
Newly released stats from the ONS show at the beginning of 2020, nearly a fifth of over 65s hadn’t used the internet within the last three months. And while some of those people are expected to have gone online during the pandemic because they had little choice but to do so, a significant number of people will also remain digitally excluded. They may have the desire to get online but may also lack the confidence, skills or equipment to remain online.
Have you ever tried to help a friend or relative not experienced or comfortable with technology to fix their smart TV so that Netflix works? Have you tried to explain to someone how Google or YouTube works and what the search function is? It sounds easy enough but in reality can be quite difficult – certainly a good exercise in patience. But it's also a good reminder that many of us take for granted how overwhelming and novel the internet is to lots of people, especially if they haven't received the right support.
So when we as a nation strive to make everything online and digital by default, we simply mustn't forget those struggling to get or stay online. And despite stereotypes, this group isn't a homogeneous one. Statistics from Lloyds Bank show that a fifth of those who haven’t used the internet within the past three months are under the age of 50. Often people’s digital confidence or skills can be linked to their job history – whether they are or were required to use computers at work – or about their ability to afford the associated costs of equipment and connection.
Online GP clinics are undeniably great for very many people to get quick advice about a straightforward health condition, but there is still a very important place for offline communications – telephone calls or face to face contact where needed. And we must not give up on those who are still offline. We must support everyone to have the confidence and skills to connect with the digital-first world and all the benefits it offers people. This way we can ensure that as many people as possible have the access to online-only jobs, discounts on shopping, free e-learning and – as the pandemic has shown us – our friends and family. Traditionally young people are considered technically savvy, and older age groups typically are not. But all of these benefits can increase dramatically our chances of living a good later life – it’s imperative in the post-pandemic world that we find ways to close the digital divide.