UK Digital Poverty Evidence Review 2022
Introduction: Myths and Shifts
In roughly the last three decades, the Internet became widely available to the public through connected devices in schools, workplaces, and the personal computing revolution, and it has transformed our societies, our economies, and our day-to-day lives as a result. It has also been transformed through public use. Moreover, the digital world, which was once conceived as a world apart — a place we visited — is now the world in which we live every day.
Although the concept of a digital divide has existed for a long time, it has also had to change as digital technologies and our relationship to them have evolved. Once conceived as the gap between digital “haves” and “have-nots”,7 years of academic research have revealed the digital divide to be a constellation of diverse and intersecting divides, with salient gaps not just in access to connections and devices but also in skills,8 literacies,9 and meaningful outcomes.10 Digital exclusion in any of these dimensions also exacerbates and is exacerbated by other socio-economic, educational, racial, linguistic, and gender inequalities.11
Policy developments have not only responded to this evolving understanding of digital exclusion, but they have also – sometimes inadvertently – contributed to the conditions of digital excension. For example, the widespread transformation of government services to digital-by-default12 has intensified the social and economic exclusion of certain groups, who have been further marginalised by the need to get online to access basic services.13 In recognition of the need to address digital inclusion in a pervasively digitising society, the Department of Education published the Essential Digital Skills Framework in 2018,14 and has funded initiatives to help people acquire these skills, such as the Digital Skills Partnerships.15
The disadvantages of digital inequality have compounded for decades, but the COVID-19 pandemic irrevocably thrust digital poverty and its damaging effects into the national spotlight. Public spaces closed in order to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus, and everyday life was suddenly confined to the private sphere, online and in the home. Digital connectivity and literacy helped overcome social isolation as many professional jobs transitioned to remote working, schools began offering remote learning, and people engaged with essential services like banking online. People who lacked sufficient connectivity, devices, or skills, however, were at a severe disadvantage. Children without access fell even further behind in education. Adults who could not transition to online work faced more exposure to the virus. Vulnerable and older adults without digital skills were cut off from social support networks and unable to access important health information.16
It is impossible to anticipate what the “new normal” will look like, as we learn to live with COVID-19 and aspire toward a post-pandemic equilibrium, facilitated by vaccinations and greater scientific knowledge. One thing is certain: many of the crisis-driven digital transformations accelerated by the pandemic – toward hybrid working, digital health, online learning and the rapid digitisation of many face-to-face services — will endure. On top of all this, a burgeoning cost of living crisis has now followed closely on the heels of the pandemic, putting mounting pressure on people already living on the brink of poverty and digital exclusion.17
In light of the startling social,18 health,19 and likely economic impacts20 of digital exclusion during the pandemic and beyond, there has never been a more important historical moment to reflect on and recalibrate our approach to digital poverty.
Defining Digital Poverty
The Digital Poverty Alliance defines digital poverty as the inability to interact with the online world fully, when, where, and how an individual needs to.21 It is related to concepts such as the digital divide, digital inclusion and exclusion, and data poverty, but it is also distinct. Economist Roxana Barrantes has defined digital poverty as “the lack of goods and services based on ICT”, but outlines a taxonomy of digital poverty that accounts for the relationship between social factors and technological access – the digitally poor might be fully offline, lacking devices and connectivity, but they may also be online but unable to realise the benefits due to lack of education or other resources.22 More recently, Nesta has defined “data poverty” as “individuals, households or communities who cannot afford sufficient, private and secure mobile or broadband data to meet their essential needs.23”
The Digital Poverty Alliance definition encompasses these definitions and goes beyond, placing the emphasis on individual need. It is consciously imprecise in order to be responsive to a changing digital landscape raising the benchmark with new technological developments and the increasing digitisation of services. As a term, digital poverty can begin to blur the lines between poverty and exclusion. When does someone go from digitally excluded to living in digital poverty? Is digital poverty a product of or contributor to socio-economic poverty?
The answer, perhaps unsatisfyingly for the reader of this report, is that the line is indeed blurry between digital exclusion and digital poverty. Digital poverty is both – the result of and a cause of financial hardship. A person might not need to live in financial poverty to experience digital poverty. Social problems are wicked ones, and the evidence in this report overwhelmingly shows that digital exclusion is much more than simply technological; it is also social – a product and producer of everyday inequalities in society.
Still, digital poverty is a helpful term because it draws attention to this relationship between the technological and the social – it connects the issue of digital exclusion to the well-documented and well-established problem of poverty. This report will be useful to readers interested in digital exclusion or digital poverty, or both. It summarises the evidence linking digital marginalisation to social precarity, though more research needs to be done to define when precarity becomes poverty and whether defining that threshold can help improve people’s lives.
This evidence review is organised around the five “determinants” of digital poverty articulated by the Digital Poverty Alliance: devices and connectivity, access, capability, motivation, and support and participation. The determinant framework draws on the rainbow model of health inequality24 and recognises that digital poverty is the result of multiple, compounding, and intersectional forms of inequality. It provides a framework within which to explore the complexities of today’s digitised service landscape.
One of the key findings in this evidence review has been the fact that the familiar categories of digital exclusion (access and connectivity, for instance) now encompass a more complex range of factors as a result of the digitisation of all spheres of life. The most innovative and effective approaches to eradicating digital poverty depend on moving the starting line to avoid several persistent fallacies, or myths, that have plagued progress on digital inclusion for years, and to account for several significant shifts in the digital landscape that now impact or exacerbate digital inequality. The Digital Poverty Alliance National Delivery Plan should be positioned at this starting line.
Introducing the evidence
The most-cited statistics in the UK pertaining to digital poverty and exclusion originate from two sources: the Ofcom Adults’ Media Use and Attitudes report, and the Lloyds Bank Consumer Digital Index and Essential Digital Skills reports. The Office for National Statistics (ONS) also publishes statistics on internet access and use, based on the Labour Force Survey and the Opinions and Lifestyle Survey (OPN). There are notable differences among these frequently cited sources. Both Ofcom and ONS publish this data publicly; it is free and available for analysis by other researchers. These are also large, nationally representative samples. The Lloyds Bank Digital Consumer Index sample is drawn from the 30 million customers across Lloyds Bank, Halifax and Bank of Scotland, from which 2,700 are telephoned for survey interviews. For the Essential Digital Skills Report, Ipsos Mori interviews around 4,000 participants and the responses are weighted to be nationally representative. Lloyds Bank does not make the data publicly available. New surveys and focus groups, such as the Nominet Digital Youth Index, commissioned from Opinium, are capturing additional insights on young people and their parents – but the data from this index is also not publicly available.
Despite the valuable contributions of these data sources to understanding digital poverty, data on digital exclusion and poverty is still fairly limited; national samples are often not granular enough to provide detail on the nuances of people’s real lives, and small, context-specific samples cannot be interpreted as representative of broad trends. Many different stakeholders across the public and private sectors produce reports on digital exclusion based on their own surveys, case studies, interviews, and statistics. These vary widely in terms of sampling technique, sample size, research aims, and audiences. The result is a cornucopia of evidence on digital exclusion and digital poverty that paints a picture of genuine need, but it is also a body of evidence that is often fragmented, sporadic, specialised, or not comparable.
The determinants form a rainbow of digital exclusion in which various social and technological factors interact with each other in different ways for different users. Ofcom reports25 that around 6% of households in the UK do not have internet access, which amounts to around 1.7 million households. More and more people are accessing the internet through a smartphone only (21%), particularly those in lower socio-economic grades. Beyond the dichotomy between users and non-users, Ofcom’s 2021 report26 identified a borderline category of “narrow users” – those who have only ever engaged in between one and ten (out of 20) types of online activity, ranging from e-mail to using social media sites to online shopping. As this report will discuss, the absolute distinction between online and offline, users and non-users is no longer the defining feature of digital exclusion or digital poverty in the UK. This report takes a deeper dive into the evidence and introduces a broader range of literature on digital disadvantage in order to understand this spectrum better.
Statistics Snapshot: The Digital Divide
Office for National Statistics (2020)
- 6.3% of adults in the UK had never used the internet
- 99% of adults age 16 – 44 were recent internet users, compared with 54% of adults aged 75 years and over
- 81% of disabled adults were recent internet users
- 71% of retired adults had used the internet in the last 3 months, compared to 99% of employed adults
Ofcom Adults’ Media Use and Attitudes (2022)
- 99% of 16-24 year olds use the internet at home, compared to 73% of those 65 and older
- Those most likely not to have internet access at home are those aged 75+ (26%), those in DE households (14%) and the most financially vulnerable (10%)
- 29% of internet users could be considered “narrow users”
Ofcom Connected Nations (2021)
- 96% of UK premises have access to superfast broadband (speeds of at least 30Mbit/s)
- Around 123,000 premises cannot get a decent broadband service of at least 10Mbit/s download speed and 1Mbit/s upload speed
Oxford Internet Survey (2019)
- 60% of those earning under £12,000/year are internet users
- 36% of those with no formal educational qualifications use the internet, compared to 95% of those with higher education qualifications
Nominet Digital Youth Index (2021)
- 30% (2.1 million) of young people aged 8-25 are at risk of becoming “digital castaways”
- 42% of young people (6 million) do not have either home broadband or a laptop/desktop computer
Lloyds Bank Essential Digital Skills (2021)
- 21% of the population (11 million people) lack Essential Digital Skills for Life, with 10 million of this group lacking even the Foundation Level of skills
- 36% (11.8 million) of the workforce lack Essential Digital Skills for Work
- There are differences among the nations in skills: 81% of people in Scotland have the Foundation Level, 79% in Northern Ireland, 81% in England, 73% in Wales
Lloyds Bank Consumer Digital Index (2021)
- 2.6 million people are still offline
- 14.9 million people have “very low” digital engagement and 5.7 million people have “low” digital engagement
- 55% of those offline earn less than £20,000 per year
- 44% of people with “very low” digital engagement earn less than £20,000 per year (compared with just 17% of those with “very high” engagement)
- 34% of benefits claimants have “very low” digital engagement (5 points higher than the national average)
- 10% of those offline are under the age of 50
Big picture myths and shifts
“Another challenge is to recognise that the ‘digital divide’ is really a spectrum, and also that the spectrum isn’t a static one. What we need and what we want to understand about where the population is on this spectrum will shift, and should shift, over time.”
Emma Stone, Good Things Foundation
There is a need to move beyond the taken-for-granted assumptions about how digital exclusion manifests and who is most affected by it – these are the big picture myths. At the same time, we know more now than we ever have about the ways in which the digital world can be imbalanced, unfair, and unsafe. These inequalities affect how people fall into digital poverty and how they experience digital poverty, and they have been exacerbated by the rapid, widespread digitisation of everyday life – they are the big picture shifts. In order to tackle digital poverty, the myths must be put to rest and the shifts must be accounted for.
Big picture myths
- The kids are alright
There are important demographic divides between those who are online with high levels of skills, and those who are offline or with low levels of skills. On the whole, people over the age of 65 are more likely to be offline.27 This rather coarse statistic has given rise to the myth that young people are naturally “digital natives”: having grown up with technology, they will acquire the necessary digital capabilities simply through high exposure. The evidence increasingly refutes this assumption,28 with factors such as employment status, education, disability, income, and self-confidence cutting across age and impacting people’s level of exclusion. Often, unequal access to technology is a feature of schooling, with a growing inequity between affluent schools with more access to and choice about technology, and less well-resourced schools with more limited access and choices. As a result, technology provision in education is deepening existing differences in life chances.
- Access is access
In the early days of digital divide research and policy, digital inequality was mainly thought of as the gap between those who have internet access and those who do not. This was called the “first-level digital divide,” and it has been thoroughly challenged by decades of further evidence showing that there are second- and third-level divides in skills, usage, and outcomes.29 Still today, digital inclusion is often treated like a switch that can be flipped on once and stays on for life. However, evidence shows that digital inclusion is a process rather than an event.30 Differences in quality, reliability, location, and experiences of access all influence whether an individual will be able to make the most of the digital world.
- Digital exclusion will diminish or disappear over time without intervention
There is a common misconception that time will solve three of the biggest factors in digital exclusion in the UK – exposure, motivation, and confidence. The logic goes that the more people have to do online, the more people will spend time online, and the better acquainted with the digital world they will become. However, the digital divide has remained a problem for digitising societies since the beginning of the digital revolution – lower prices for hardware, more devices, and widespread connectivity have not solved digital exclusion. This is because digital inclusion is relative, the benchmarks are always changing as technology changes, and the solutions depend on social, political and technical responses to inequality. Ultimately, only concerted top-down and bottom-up efforts to address deep-rooted societal inequalities will help make progress on digital poverty. This dynamic approach demands thinking big and small at the same time, and putting the needs of people first.
- Digital is not a separate domain, sector, or agenda
In our increasingly digitised world, the division between online and offline has become completely blurred. One of the tensions in dealing with digital poverty is keeping the spotlight on digital and its contribution to disadvantage, while also stressing that digital is pervasive and cannot be treated as a separate issue or programme.
A focus on digital poverty, like the one taken in this report, could be misconstrued to suggest that “digital” constitutes its own domain, separate or on top of other domains of social life, such as education or work. The reality is that digital is embedded in all domains. In the words of Ofcom Chief Executive Dame Melanie Dawes, digital is not a separate sector.31
- The digitally excluded are still digital citizens
Everyone is part of a digital society — whether they are online or not. “Datafication” is the process by which information about people is turned into data that can be processed by computers,32 and this occurs behind the scenes, whether the datafied person is digitally literate or not. It is important to recognise how the digital world affects everyone – even people who are not actively online or have long periods of digital absence33 – especially as more of our everyday lives are digitised through the Internet of Things and Smart Cities, for example.
- The digital world can be unfair by design
A growing body of literature has emerged on the issue of algorithmic bias34 and automated discrimination.35 Tackling the determinants of digital poverty will entail an awareness of the assumptions that go into the design and deployment of technology and how these can replicate and deepen certain inequalities and exclusions. Digital poverty is not just about access to connection and devices; it is also about ensuring the digitised, algorithmic systems do not perpetuate, deepen, or create new disadvantages for people.36 The automation of many processes and services and the invisibility of algorithmic “decisions” can create a false impression that these decisions are objective and neutral. When frontline staff in essential services rely on these outputs, it can deepen inequalities faced by already disadvantaged groups. In addition, the design of platforms and technologies can actively exclude, mislead, or disadvantage certain users. For example, websites that have not been designed to Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) exclude assistive technology users and other disabled users.
“When we started to do this research in 2015, no one really recognised the scale of the problem. Even more so today, digital is the golden thread throughout everything and a key enabler for society.”
Joanna Boosey, Lloyds Banking Group
Because of these game-changing shifts, digital inclusion can be a double-edged sword: being included in the digital world is necessary to live a fulfilling life today, but participation in the digital world as we know it also exposes people – particularly people with low literacy and skills – to new disadvantages and even harms. This report strives to spotlight this tension, rather than treating digital poverty as a problem that can be solved by simply getting more individuals online and skilled up.
Aims of this report
This evidence review synthesises evidence-based insights that have emerged in roughly the last decade around digital exclusion and digital poverty. Based on a review of academic and grey literature, the report highlights key themes, organised into the five determinants of digital poverty as outlined by the Digital Poverty Alliance. It also surfaces several key recommendations for addressing the complexities of digital poverty today. The review and related recommendations will inform the Digital Poverty Alliance’s forthcoming National Delivery Plan.
Rather than focus on what have become familiar headline statistics about the digital divide, each chapter introduces the determinant broadly and then takes a “deeper dive” into the relative disparities and contextual social factors in digital life that might push people into digital poverty in the UK today. The deeper dive adds some nuance and complexity to the definition of each determinant. By training a spotlight on these complexities, the report aspires toward nuanced, critical, and connected thinking about how to make our digitally connected future more equitable, just, and fair for the most marginalised people.
Although the evidence is diverse, it collectively points to a clear awareness of the challenge and an urgent call to action: digital poverty is a persistent problem that is both the product of and a contributor to societal inequality, and it will not go away on its own. Tackling digital poverty will require connected policies, interventions, and research agendas across the public and private sectors and at national and local scales that put digital equity at the heart of the UK’s future.
How to use this report
The evidence consulted for this report articulates the scale and persistence of digital poverty: today millions of people in the UK do not benefit from the digital world as we know it.37
The following chapters aim to surface evidence that can help us understand the complexity of digital poverty. They offer a deeper-dive reading of existing qualitative and quantitative research that reveals how social and technical factors interact to sustain digital poverty. Top-level statistics bring the wow factor – they identify broad trends and point to the need for urgent action. But to address digital poverty as an endemic problem, rather than a crisis, we need to spend more time digging beneath those numbers to identify the how factor – where to target interventions at the intersection of technology and lived experience.
The chapters can each be read on their own, but the determinants of digital poverty overlap and intersect in real life, so readers should approach this report with the understanding that no determinant (or chapter) exists in isolation.
7 NTIA (National Telecommunications and Information Administration). (1995). Falling through the net: A survey of the ‘have nots’ in rural and urban America. National Telecommunications and Information Administration. https://eric.ed.gov/?id=ED399126
8 Hargittai, E. (2002). Second-level digital divide: Differences in people’s online skills. First Monday. https://firstmonday.org/article/view/942/864
9 Carmi, E., & Yates, S. J. (2020). What do digital inclusion and data literacy mean today? Internet Policy Review, 9(2). https://doi.org/DOI: 10.14763/2020.2.1474
10 Helsper, E. J., Van Deursen, A., & Eynon, R. (2015). Tangible Outcomes of Internet Use: From Digital Skills to Tangible Outcomes project report. Oxford Internet Institute. www.oii.ox.ac.uk/research/projects/?id=112
11 Helsper, E. J. (2012). A Corresponding Fields Model for the Links Between Social and Digital Exclusion. Communication Theory, 22, 403–426.
12 Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport, & Bradley, K. (2017). UK Digital Strategy. UK Government. https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/uk-digital-strategy
13 Yates, S. J., Kirby, J., & Lockley, E. (2015). ‘Digital-by-default’: Reinforcing exclusion through technology. In F. Foster, A. Brunton, C. Deeming, & T. Haux (Eds.), In Defence of Welfare (pp. 158– 161). Policy Press.
14 Department for Education. (2018). Essential Digital Skills Framework. Department for Education. https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/738922/Essential_digital_skills_framework.pdf
15 Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport. (2018, October 19). Guidance: Digital Skills Partnership. https://www.gov.uk/guidance/digital-skills-partnership
16 House of Lords COVID-19 Committee. (2021). 1st Report of Session 2019–21: Beyond Digital: Planning for a Hybrid World (HL Paper 263). House of Lords. https://committees.parliament.uk/ publications/5537/documents/56741/default/ ; Robinson, L., Schulz, J., Khilnani, A., Ono, H., Cotten, S. R., McClain, N., Levine, L., Chen, W., Huang, G., Casilli, A., Tubaro, P., Dodel, M., Quan-Haase, A., Ruiu, M. L., Ragnedda, M., Aikat, D., & Tolentino, N. (2020). Digital Inequalities in Time of Pandemic: Covid-19 Exposure Risk Profiles and New Forms of Vulnerability. First Monday, 25(7). https://doi. org/10.5210/fm.v25i7.10845
17 Holt-White, E. (2022). The pandemic outside the school gates: Mental health epidemic and the cost of living crisis. Sutton Trust. https://www.suttontrust.com/news-opinion/all-newsopinion/the-pandemic-outside-the-school-gates-mental-health-epidemic-and-the-cost-ofliving-crisis/
18 Moroney, M., & Jarvis, A. (2020). Loneliness and Digital Inclusion: A Literature Review. The National Lottery Community Fund. https://www.tnlcommunityfund.org.uk/media/insights/documents/Loneliness-and-Digital-Inclusion-AJ.pdf
19 Stone, E. (2021) “Digital Exclusion and Health Inequalities,” The Good Things Foundation. Available at: https://www.goodthingsfoundation.org/insights/digital-exclusion-and-health-inequalities/. Accessed 04 March 2022.
20 Cebr. (2018). The economic impact of Digital Inclusion in the UK. The Good Things Foundation. https://www.goodthingsfoundation.org/insights/economic-impact-digital-inclusion/
21 The Digital Poverty Alliance. (n.d.). How We Define Digital Poverty. https://digitalpovertyalliance.org
22 Barrantes, R. (2007). Analysis of ICT Demand: What is Digital Poverty and How to Measure it? In H. Galperin & J. Mariscal (Eds.), Digital Poverty: Latin American and Caribbean Perspectives (pp. 29 – 53). Practical Action Publishing.
23 Lucas, P. J., Robinson, R., & Treacy, L. (2021). Data Poverty in Scotland and Wales. YLab & Nesta. https://www.nesta.org.uk/report/data-poverty-scotland-and-wales/
24 Dahlgren, G., & Whitehead, M. (2021). The Dahlgren-Whitehead model of health determinants: 30 years on and still chasing rainbows. Public Health, 199, 20–24. https://doi.org/10.1016/j. puhe.2021.08.009
25 Ofcom. (2022). Adults’ Media Use and Attitudes report 2022. https://www.ofcom.org. uk/__data/assets/pdf_file/0020/234362/adults-media-use-and-attitudes-report-2022.pdf
26 Ofcom. (2021). Adults’ Media Use and Attitudes. https://www.ofcom.org.uk/__data/assets/pdf_file/0025/217834/adults-media-use-and-attitudes-report-2020-21.pdf
27 Office for National Statistics. (2019). Exploring the UK’s digital divide. https://www.ons.gov. uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/householdcharacteristics/homeinternetandsocialmediausage/articles/exploringtheuksdigitaldivide/2019-03-04
28 See, for instance: Helsper, E. J., & Eynon, R. (2009). Digital natives: Where is the evidence? British Educational Research Journal, 1–18. https://doi.org/10.1080/01411920902989227; Yates, S. J. (2020, March 13). Not all young people are ‘digital natives’ – inequality hugely limits experiences of technology. The Conversation. https://theconversation.com/not-all-young-people-are-digital-natives-inequality-hugely-limits-experiences-of-technology-133102; Nominet. (2021). Digital Youth Index 2021. https://www.nominet.uk/wp-content/uploads/2021/12/Nominet-Digital-Youth-Index-Report-2021.pdf
29 Van Dijk, J. (2019). The Digital Divide. Polity Press.
30 Richardson, J. (2018). I am connected: New approaches to supporting people in later life online. Centre for Aging Better and Good Things Foundation. https://www.goodthingsfoundation.org/research-publications/i-am-connected-new-approaches-supporting-people-later-life-online
31 Mejias, U. A. & Couldry, N. (2019). Datafication. Internet Policy Review, 8(4). https://doi. org/10.14763/2019.4.1428
32 Bucher, T. (2020). Nothing to disconnect from? Being singular plural in an age of machine learning. Media, Culture & Society, 42(4), 610–617. https://doi.org/10.1177/0163443720914028
33 Binns, R. & Valeria G. (2021). Human Bias and Discrimination in AI Systems. https://ico.org. uk/about-the-ico/news-and-events/ai-blog-human-bias-and-discrimination-in-ai-systems/
34 Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation. (2020). Review into bias in algorithmic decision-making. https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/cdei-publishes-review-into-bias-in-algorithmic-decision-making/main-report-cdei-review-into-bias-in-algorithmic-decision-making
35 Ragnedda, M. (2020). Enhancing Digital Equity: Connecting the Digital Underclass. Palgrave MacMillan. https://link.springer.com/book/10.1007/978-3-030-49079-9
36 Digital is not a sector – why regulators must collaborate for a safer life online. (2021, October 6). Ofcom. https://www.ofcom.org.uk/about-ofcom/latest/media/speeches/2021/collaborating-for-safer-life-online
37 Globally, billions of people are still offline and face intersectional forms of digital and social exclusion. The UK is a comparatively well-connected and digitally literate country, but digital poverty still afflicts millions, even in this relatively privileged context.