How the lack of digital skills is leading to disconnection

Fingers typing on a keyboard.
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For older people already at risk of isolation and loneliness, the pandemic safety measures introduced over the past couple of years will have made this period even more challenging. Whilst technology has helped to facilitate communication, whether between loved ones through video calling, or the rise of online-enabled working from home, it’s clear there is a digital divide. Large numbers of UK citizens simply don’t have the tech or the digital skills needed to make the most of life online, now and in the future.

About the author

Professor Kerensa Jennings is Senior Adviser of Digital Impact at BT Group.

Restrictions may well be less severe right now, but many vulnerable and older people might still need or want to isolate to protect themselves or loved ones. As a result, technology is more vital than ever before to ensure these individuals aren’t left feeling disconnected. However, accessing new technology can be overwhelming, particularly if it’s unfamiliar or tricky to use. Technology can seem more like a barrier than a connector if there’s no-one to help show how to use new devices or applications. Older people, or those with reduced mobility, might find touch screens fiddly to use. Visually impaired people might struggle with small fonts, unhelpful color contrasts on-screen, and buttons which are hard to find. And the range of options on devices, products and services can be perplexing for anyone – but particularly those with access needs

Technological development is fantastic when it opens doors and creates new opportunities, but we need to ensure it opens doors for everyone. As technology advances, using exciting innovations in AI and the opportunities of Web 3.0 and beyond, improving access to make it truly inclusive is mission critical.

The reality of getting online

According to the Lloyds Bank UK consumer digital index 2021 report – an annual look at digital skill levels across the UK – the pandemic has encouraged significantly more people to use online tools, with 1.5 million more people now using the internet since the start of the restrictions. This means that 95 per cent of people are now ‘online’, up from 92 per cent pre-pandemic. However, it also means that the 5 per cent not online are at an even greater risk of being excluded from day-to-day services and activities, while there is also no guaranteeing that those online are making the most out of their newfound connectivity.

Research from BT Skills for Tomorrow suggests that many older people aged 70 and over suffered from a difficult combination of both physical and digital isolation during lockdown. A poll of 1,000 people who have a close relative over 70 found that half believe their relative is reluctant to try and learn new skills when it comes to technology. While nearly four in ten said family members are open to improving their digital skills, but just don’t know where to start.

An example that illustrates just how pressing this issue has become is the way we access health services today. The shift to digital was catalyzed by the pandemic but will likely remain in place moving forwards. Having the right digital skills to access - and then make the most of these services – could be life changing. Yet worrying statistics from research by Opinion Matters found that almost half (45 per cent) of those in the UK have either struggled or know someone who has struggled to access NHS health services, using apps or online tools, since the start of the pandemic. These services are absolutely vital in modern healthcare, especially for the elderly and vulnerable, so we need to ensure that everyone has the knowledge, skills and confidence to use them.

As well as issues surrounding accessibility, a quarter of people said their loved ones believe the internet is unsafe, with 29 per cent also noting that their relatives haven’t got anyone to teach them how to use it.

Creating a solution

While bridging the digital skills gap will take a multi-pronged, joined up approach across the technology value chain, one of the quickest and easiest solutions we can put in place is making information accessible. There is a range of free to use resources available online for people to learn these digital skills, from introductions to using social media networks to protecting vulnerable users from scams. But as our lives become ever more reliant on digital technology, it is increasingly important to help everyone make the most of life in the digital world. Whether that’s making video calls, using online banking or taking advantage of online health services, all of us should have a right to access the tech and the skills to stay connected.

To tackle the digital skills gap and the loneliness and isolation it can cause, we must help older generations take advantage of the benefits that technology provides, from accessing vital services to staying in touch with family and friends. So where does the onus lie? A collaborative approach where businesses, the third sector and government join forces is the first step to ensuring people can not only access the information they require to stay connected, but have the help at hand should they need it. I am an Ambassador for the Digital Poverty Alliance, and we are all working hard to find practical solutions that will make a difference. There is no time to lose. Action is needed right now – today.

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Professor Kerensa Jennings is Senior Adviser, Digital Impact at BT Group. She also chairs the DCMS Tackling Loneliness Network Digital Inclusion Group, and is a Board Member at FutureDotNow, helping drive digital skills in workplaces across the UK.