Today the government has published its Loneliness Strategy, and for those only giving the executive summary the most cursory of scans, it might seem like digital gets short shrift. In the early pages, the positive impacts of digital seem to be skimmed over.
So I was slightly relieved when I read further into the strategy and saw the strategy reference some of these positive impacts, but it felt like a bit of an afterthought. There are a number of first hand stories - from a new Mum using an app to connect to others locally, to a carer using the Carers UK forum - but the strategy stops short of endorsing the hugely important role digital can have in helping us to connect with like-minded people, either in our local community, or with others who share similar interests of life experiences.
This was also reflected in the inspiring Campaign to End Loneliness Conference I attended last week where the untapped potential of digital to enable people to build meaningful connections alongside a recognition that we need to more fully understand the risks and benefits of living in a digital society did not emerge in the conversations until later in the afternoon at one of the mainstage panel sessions.
In the last ten years through our network of 5,000 plus hyperlocal Online Centres we have supported over 2.4 million socially and digitally excluded people to gain new skills, confidence and connections through digital. We were pleased to see a reference to three of our national programmes in the Strategy, all of which have made a proven contribution to tackling loneliness:
Our learner progression survey shows that 61% are less lonely and 76% feel more connected following involvement in our Future Digital Inclusion programme (funded by DfE).
67% of our English My Way (Funded by MHCLG) learners improved their confidence to use their English with neighbours and acquaintances. 76% improved their confidence to talk to people generally.
52% of NHS Widening Digital Participation (funded by NHS England) phase one programme learners felt less lonely or isolated and 62% felt happier as a result of more social contact.
Support in the community at the Mercy Foundation - an Online Centre.
Across our programmes and networks we have many examples of how a blended approach of hyperlocal community support using digital as an enabler has helped people from many backgrounds to build meaningful relationships.
Like Stephen, who after losing his job and suffering a heart attack, was left feeling depressed, locking himself away from everyone and not leaving the house. After being encouraged to go to his local Online Centre for help with work skills, Stephen discovered that his centre offered much more, eventually going on to become a volunteer at the centre to help others.
“I don’t know where I’d be if I hadn’t come here - nowhere good, that’s for sure... I’d have never have guessed before how much I’d get out of learning digital skills. And Access for Business is a wonderful place for people like me to come. As soon as you walk through the door it’s like a family atmosphere - and it’s not like that everywhere. Everyone’s got a smile on their face and you’re always made welcome. “ Stephen
Digital is a reality for all of us. And while it can have the potential to exclude and make people feel more lonely, the opposite is also true. It is a shame the strategy misses the opportunity to put the role of digital front and centre, amplifying the role that digital is already having in bringing people together, as well as addressing some of the challenges it can cause.
"The group helps me to get out more. If I wasn't coming here I'd probably still be in my bed feeling moped and thinking about how much I don't want to go out or do anything. It's not just the days I'm at the centre either, it gives me a little bit of a boost on other days too." Carly
The role of hyperlocal community organisations
We're of course welcoming of the strategy, which is putting plans in place to tackle one of the most pressing social issues of our time. The community organisations we work with in the Online Centres Network are tackling loneliness every day - helping people to connect with others, overcome challenges and take care of their wellbeing. It is great to see the strategy recognise the role of community organisations in doing this, and I hope that policy to support these organisations will follow. It is crucial we adequately resource the community sector to do this- they cannot pick up the slack where other frontline providers aren't able to help.
The focus on social prescribing is also a positive one. Through our Widening Digital Participation programme with NHS Digital, we're testing models of social prescribing for digital skills. In our recent Sheffield Pathfinder, we saw the positive impacts social prescribing can have for patients, and we're keen to investigate this further. We have learnt that it is crucial that initiatives like these are led by the needs of the individuals and communities, and there are lessons from both this pilot, and from across the Online Centres delivering social prescribing activity that we are keen to share, and to build on. Our Online Centres are telling us that much of their usual funding sources have gone, that rents for facilities have become unaffordable, staff and volunteers are stretched and the people who they support have increasingly high levels of complex needs.The success of social prescribing will be in making sure the charities, community organisations and local partners vital to its success are instrumental in its delivery, rather than being used as just a place to refer people out to.
Harnessing the untapped potential of digital and community
In summary, there is much to feel hopeful about in this strategy, and I'm pleased government is adopting a cross-departmental approach in order to tackle the issue of loneliness. The UK is leading the charge in this area, and I know many other countries are keeping a keen eye on what we do.
While the strategy tackles a number of key issues, for me there is much more to be done to harness the potential of the important and positive role digital can play.
It's crucial that across the board, government policy both understands and maximises the role digital can play - as this is the way we really will be leading the way in tackling social issues. In this area, there is still more to be done.