Why the digital divide matters for children’s future prospects

By Steven McGinty

One of the biggest myths of modern times is that all children and young people are ‘digital natives’. That is, they have developed an understanding of digital technologies as they’ve grown up, rather than as adults. But this view has been heavily contested, with research highlighting that young people are not a “homogeneous generation of digital children”.

In the media, the issue is rarely given attention. Instead, news reports focus on the use of futuristic technologies in the classroom, such as East Renfrewshire Council’s recent announcement of their investment of £250,000 in virtual reality equipment. The less spoken truth is that many children and young people are leaving school without basic digital skills.

In 2017, the Carnegie Trust UK published a report challenging the assumption that all young people are digitally literate. They highlighted that as many as 300,000 young people in the UK still lack basic digital skills, and that although more are becoming digitally engaged, the division is deepening for those that remain excluded.

In particular, the report highlighted that vulnerable young people are most at risk, such as those who are unemployed, experiencing homelessness, living in care, in secure accommodation, excluded from mainstream education, or seeking asylum.

Research by the UK Digital Skills Taskforce has also found that many young people lack digital skills. However, an arguably more worrying finding from their study was that 23% of parents did not believe digital skills were relevant to their children’s future career success. This suggests that digital literacy is as much associated with socio-cultural values as to whether you are Generation X or Generation Y.

Similarly, the CfBT Education Trust examined the digital divide in access to the internet for school students aged five to 15. It found that children from households of the lowest socio-economic class access the internet for just as long as those from other backgrounds, but they are significantly less likely to use the internet to carry out school work or homework. As a result, the report recommended that interventions should not focus on improving access but rather ensuring that students are using technology effectively.

Further research by the CfBT Education Trust found that only 3% of young people did not have access to the internet, and suggested that schemes which provide students with free equipment are in danger of wasting resources.

Many believe digital skills are essential for academic success. This includes the House of Lords Select Committee on Communications, who in 2017 recommended that digital skills should be taught alongside reading, writing and mathematics, rather than in specialist computer science classes.

Research, however, is unclear on the digital divide’s impact on educational performance (for example, research has shown that smartphone use has no impact on education attainment). But teachers are concerned about their pupils, and in a 2010 survey 55% of teachers felt that the digital divide was putting children at a serious disadvantage.

However, there are organisations offering hope to young people. For instance, Nominet Trust’s Digital Reach programme is working with leading youth organisations to increase digital skills amongst some of the UK’s most disadvantaged young people. Vicki Hearn, director at Nominet Trust, explains that:

Digitally disadvantaged young people are amongst the hardest-to-reach and we need new models to engage with them to disrupt the cycle of disadvantage and exclusion. Our evidenced approach gives us confidence that Digital Reach will have a tangible impact on the lives of those who have so far been left behind.”

Final thoughts

Whether someone has digital skills or not is often a mix of their socio-economic class, cultural values, and even personality traits. However, if everyone is to prosper in a digital society, it will be important that all children and young people are encouraged to develop these digital skills, so they can utilise the technologies of tomorrow.


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Gigabit cities: laying the foundations for the information society

Man sitting at a desk, with stars and nebula's behind him

By Steven McGinty

According to the Foundation for Information Society Policy (FISP), an independent think tank, London’s poor broadband infrastructure will threaten the capital’s ability to compete with other global cities in the future.

David Brunnen, FISP member and an independent telecoms infrastructure expert, explains that although demand for broadband is growing rapidly, the capital still relies mostly on networks of copper wires, which Tech City have described as ‘not fit for purpose’.

The solution, the foundation advocates, is to create a new infrastructure agency, Digital for Londoners (DfL), to ensure that London becomes a ‘Gigabit City’ by 2020.

What are gigabit cities?

In simple terms, gigabit cites provide citizens, business and governments with access to gigabit internet services (1,000 megabits per second or higher). By replacing old copper cables for pure fibre infrastructure, cities can enable public services to take advantage of technology, support businesses to innovate, and improve the lives of citizens. As US President Barack Obama explains, ‘it’s like unleashing a tornado of innovation’.

In the UK, CityFibre, is the main provider of Gigabit Cities. Their network covers 40 cities, including Glasgow and Bristol, across major data centres and busy internet traffic points, and provides 260,000 businesses and 3.7 million homes with gigabit broadband.

On 22nd September 2016, Northampton became the latest UK gigabit city. In an agreement between CityFibre and dbfb, a Northampton-based business internet service provider, businesses will now receive internet speeds of up to 100 times faster than the UK’s average. Paul Griffiths, from Northamptonshire Chamber of Commerce, highlights that this investment will play an important role for start-up businesses competing globally.

The initiative will also help Northampton County Council achieve their target of making gigabit broadband available, countywide, by the end of 2017.

Chattanooga

In 2010, Chattanooga, Tennessee, became one of the first cities to make gigabit connectivity widely available. Its mayor, Andy Berke, has described its introduction as a significant source of the city’s economic renewal.

Gigabit broadband has allowed a tech industry to emerge from a city more commonly associated with heavy manufacturing. Tech companies and investment have been drawn by the ‘The Gig’ – the local name for the network – resulting in the conversion of former factory buildings into flats, open-space offices, restaurants and shops. In the past three years, the city’s unemployment rate has dropped from 7.8% to 4.1%. The mayor has also linked the city’s wage growth to jobs in the technology sector.

‘The Gig’ was funded by a combination of public and private investment. EPB, the city-owned utility company, borrowed $219 million and received a $111 million grant from the US Government. This government-led approach has given Chattanooga broadband speeds greater than Google Fibre, a major gigabit broadband provider. Wired magazine suggests that government involvement raises expectations, and encourages commercial providers to improve their infrastructure.

Stokab, Stockholm

The Stockholm city government have one of the oldest gigabit strategies, founding the private company, Stokab, to deploy and manage their city-wide fibre network in 1994. Stokab was created to help the city benefit from the new digital era by limiting multiple network deployments, and by stimulating the technology sector.  The end-to-end fibre broadband network serves 700 service provider businesses and connects 90% of residential premises.

The gigabit network has provided a wide variety of economic benefits, including:

  • becoming a catalyst for the technology sector (The Kista Science Park has over 1000 technology businesses, with 24,000 employees)
  • creating growth and jobs valued at €900 million
  • providing low cost broadband services to business – through increased competition – has resulted in an estimated €8.5 million worth of savings
  • increasing housing values by €200 million and rental values by €3.5 million per year

Digital inclusion

Although gigabit broadband could create limitless opportunities, it also has the potential to exacerbate existing inequalities. Citizens, and even small businesses, could lose out if they don’t have the skills or technologies to access the internet.

Salford Council realises the important role technology plays in creating vibrant communities. As part of their rollout of gigabit broadband services across social housing, the council are introducing a digital skills campaign to encourage more residents online. Volunteers are being recruited to assist neighbours who are less digitally savvy. As encouragement, they are being offered a free IPad and a free broadband service, if they train more than 20 people a year.

Final thoughts

To compete globally, cities will be looking to introduce gigabit broadband infrastructure. London, as a global technology hub and a key driver for growth across the UK, will need to invest in order to support businesses and meet the expectations of citizens. Government may have to provide greater leadership in order to incentivise private sector involvement. Equally, digital exclusion will need to be tackled, to ensure that everyone can participate in the information society.


Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in public and social policy are interesting our research team. If you found this article interesting, you may also like to read our other smart cities articles. 

The Carnegie Trust and the Wheatley Group: showing us how we can tackle digital exclusion

By Steven McGinty

As the government pushes towards ‘digital by default’, a policy which envisions most public services being delivered online, it’s worth remembering that 20% of the UK population still lack basic internet skills. Groups such as Citizens Advice Scotland (CAS) have raised concerns that ‘digital by default’ could significantly impact on vulnerable and marginalised communities, particularly those claiming welfare benefits. However, if every citizen had basic digital skills and could use online government services, it could save the public purse between £1.7 and £1.8 billion annually.

So, which groups are the most digitally excluded?

According to the UK Government’s digital inclusion strategy, digital exclusion occurs among the most disadvantaged and vulnerable groups in society. These include:

  • those living in social housing (approximately 37% of those digitally-excluded live in social housing);
  • those on low incomes (44% of people without basic digital skills are either on low wages or are unemployed);
  • those with disabilities (54% of people who have never been online have disabilities);
  • older people (69% of over 55’s are without basic digital skills);
  • young people (only 27% of young people who don’t have access to the internet are in full-time employment).

What are the main barriers to using online services?

In 2013, the Carnegie Trust carried out research into internet access in Glasgow. The findings suggest that there are three common reasons why people never go online:

  • the comfort of doing things offline (34% of people cited their preference for speaking to people on the telephone, or in person, as the reason they don’t go online);
  • a fear of digital technology and the internet ( 28% were worried about issues such as using technology and staying safe online);
  • the costs involved (20% of people highlighted pressures on incomes and the cost of internet connections).

What are the main drivers for people going online?

More recently, the Carnegie Trust carried out a new piece of research, replicating their Glasgow study in two new locations: Dumfries and Kirkcaldy. The study investigated the main reasons people choose to go online. The findings show that:

  • 56% of people went online to find information of interest to them;
  • 48% went online to keep in touch with friends and family;
  • 44% thought it would be an interesting thing to do;
  • 44% had to go online as part of their work.

 How can we encourage people to go online?

Both Carnegie Trust studies show that each individual’s journey to digital inclusion is different and that a ‘personal hook’ or motivation, such as the opportunity to communicate with family members abroad, is an important tool for encouraging digital participation.

Additionally, they also show that friends and family are an important source of help when people are taking their first steps online. For instance, the case studies in Dumfries and Kirkcaldy highlight that people would appreciate help from ‘trusted intermediaries’ or local groups.  Therefore, it’s important that digital participation initiatives make use of existing communities’ networks and tap into the support available from friends and families.

Wheatley Group

The Wheatley Group, which includes Scotland’s largest social landlord, the Glasgow Housing Association (GHA), has been heavily involved in addressing digital exclusion. They have developed a digital strategy to help social tenants access the internet and are committed to proving free or low cost internet access (maximum of £5 per month).

The Group has also been involved in two pilot projects: one which provides technology to 12 low-rise homes, and the Digital Demonstrator project, which tests the feasibility of low-cost broadband in multi-storey blocks. The pilot projects highlighted two important lessons:

  1. the role of the local Housing Officer was key for engaging with tenants
  2. it was important that communities and neighbours learned together.

In an ideal world, every citizen would be digitally literate, and be able to interact with government online. However, this is not the reality. The work carried out by the Carnegie Trust and the Wheatley Group provides a solid basis for developing digital initiatives and ensuring that citizens and communities are not left out.


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