At Good Things Foundation, we’re all about digital inclusion and social inclusion. Our vision is a world where everyone benefits from digital technology. With the support of the Online Centres Network, we design, deliver and evaluate programmes that aim to tackle these issues and make sure that no-one is left behind in our increasingly digital world.
But what about those people who have their own reasons for not using the internet? People’s lives are complicated and it’s not as simple as making technology available or putting on IT classes. There are often tougher barriers for people to overcome before they can engage with digital technology. It’s a fluid state, too. And to overcome or respond to these barriers you have to understand them first.
For some time, the key barriers associated with digital exclusion have been understood in UK policy and practice as:
- The basic/essential digital skills gap;
- A lack of access to a connection and/or device;
- The motivational barriers preventing people from engaging.
The first two of these barriers have been explicitly explored quite a bit through various programmes and interventions. But it was this third barrier that we wanted to unpick a little more. So, with the support from BT and Simeon Yates from the University of Liverpool, we did some research.
Its aim was simple:
To better understand the specific reasons people in the UK give for being offline, in greater depth and granularity than currently available research.
Today we have launched our findings. To achieve this aim, however, required quite a bit of thought. We started with three questions:
- What are the specific reasons people have for not engaging with the internet, below the level of ‘motivation’ or ‘trust’?
- How do these specific reasons vary by demographic (eg. unemployment, low skills, age), and which reasons are most important for different groups?
- To what extent are the reasons people give for being offline ‘masking’ other/deeper reasons or issues, including the role of proxy users?
We then figured out which ways of researching would help us to start answering these questions. This is what we did:
The full report provides a more detailed methodology.
Three things that particularly stood out to me (among many)
There are a lot of people that say “it’s not for me” and they now make up the lion’s share of non-users.
We might have thought that people have well-formulated reasons for not using the internet. In fact, given half the chance, people will say it’s just not their bag. Sometimes this is due to a fear of using it; other times there’s no relevance to people’s day-to-day lives.
The digital inclusion sector has been doing a fantastic job in reducing the number of people without access or the necessary skills to use the internet. But the people that are still non-users of the internet are increasingly becoming the hardest to reach, let alone engage with the internet. They are the people most likely to say “it’s not for me”. We must improve our approaches for understanding and overcoming this barrier if we are to come anywhere close to the aspirations of the Blueprint for a 100% Digitally Included Nation.
(It’s worth noting though that the way we currently collect data at scale doesn’t always give people the opportunities to unpick their reasons in more detail. In some of the larger surveys we give people the option to say ‘it’s not for people like me’ without understanding why they might think that.)
We don’t yet have a common understanding of what ‘digital’ is (but we assume we do)
Throughout the interviews, we started to notice something. People would self-declare (sometimes proudly) that they didn’t use the internet. Then, they would start talking about a mobile phone. And that would be followed up with references to using the phone for WhatsApp or Facebook.
We have discussed this with colleagues in other research organisations since and it appears that it’s an increasingly common phenomenon. It’s hardly surprising though. As technology advances and the internet becomes less and less synonymous with a desktop computer, keyboard and mouse, we need to rethink our language when we ask people questions about how they use ‘digital’ or ‘the internet’. If we don’t, we risk understanding less and less about the ways to support people.
The link between your life circumstances and how you perceive the internet is profound (and it’s not all about age)
The age at which you left education. Your social class. Your income. How confident you are with literacy in a general sense.
These are all statistically significant indicators of whether you will use the internet at all. If you don’t use the internet, they are also statistically significant indicators of whether you will say “it’s not for me” as the main reason. If you do use the internet, they are statistically significant indicators of whether you use the internet in a limited way (and therefore do not benefit as widely).
The perception that the internet is ‘freely’ available to all and everyone is reaping the rewards is not currently true. We must turn this around. And understanding people’s motivations is central to this.
Digital inclusion is social inclusion.
Find out more
View the report in full, as well as some other resources we have produced on the back of the research.
Email firstname.lastname@example.org if you have any queries.