Tackling loneliness and digital inclusion in a digital society!

20 Jul 2018 | Written by Roz Davies


Online Centre, 65 High Street, Nailsea

A national and complex issue:

The issues of the digital society as a cause of loneliness and isolation are complex and important to acknowledge but when brought together with hyperlocal community building activity, can digital also be an enabler to overcoming loneliness and isolation?

People who are not online and who are lonely and socially isolated face multiple barriers to participating and flourishing in the digital society.

There are over 9 million people in our country who are lonely and socially isolated and over 11.3 million people who don't have basic online skills.

According to the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness. It is a problem that can affect people of any age and background but there is a greater risk for some groups, e.g. older people, people who are disabled, carers and people who are migrants and refugees. There are also critical points and events in our lives where people are more likely to become lonely and socially isolated, e.g. bereavement, parenthood, and moving homes and schools.

Good Things Foundation have recognised that there is some correlation between loneliness and digital exclusion, for example people with disabilities and older people:

  • There are 50% of people who live with disabilities who are lonely on any given day and 25% of the adults who live with disabilities have never used the internet
  • More than 1 in 3 people who are over the age of 75 say that feelings of loneliness are outside of their control and 51% of digitally excluded people are over the age of 65.

It is also important to understand the complex relationship between loneliness and digital exclusion and other issues such as poverty and inequality, lack of basic english language skills and health and wellbeing.

Hyperlocal online centres and digital as an enabler:

Good Things Foundation supports a network of 5,000 Online Centres who work at a hyperlocal level to help people who are more digitally and socially excluded to benefit from digital.

The Online Centres use a face to face, open door, and whole person approach blended with digital as an enabler in many different ways. Whilst loneliness and social isolation has often not been the primary focus, we have learnt that our blended approach often leads to people feeling more connected and less socially isolated. For example we know that:

  • Our learner progression survey shows that 61% are less lonely and 76% feel more connected following involvement in our Future Digital Inclusion programme. 82% are more confident users and 95% had improved wellbeing.
  • 67% of our English My Way 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 phase one programme learners felt less lonely or isolated and 62% felt happier as a result of more social contact.

This is a journey which over 2.4 million people have gone on with the support of Online Centres and is captured in our Theory of Change

Digital is being used in different ways to grow social networks and build relationships and a greater sense of community.

The IOT research highlights a number of ways digital is helping to overcome loneliness and social isolation:

  • Maintaining existing relationships, e.g. Family in Touch
  • Facilitating informal and formal care, e.g. In Touch Living
  • Growing a collaborative economy, e.g. Good Gym and Casserole Club

There are also a wealth of well known initiatives such as Eden Communities 'Big Lunch' which are using digital to promote and engage people in community activities and there is evidence to show that online peer support activities 'help people feel less alone'. Some examples include mumsnet, #BPDChat and #GBDOC.

What have we learnt about tackling loneliness:

Through our programmes we have learnt that to engage people it is important that there is a sense of informality i.e. no service referral is needed to access support and become part of an Online Centre community

Support for more vulnerable and socially excluded groups must be free and easy to access and includes people, resources, activities and learning.

Creating an empathetic and authentic environment is essential including through staff and volunteers who have shared experience of life's difficulties and who are non judgemental, willing to respond to a diversity of needs and that people may be vulnerable at different points across the life course and that loneliness may be a product of key changes in life and/or life circumstances.

Online Centres are highly effective in building connections and overcoming loneliness than more formal support services. This is demonstrated through our longitudinal behaviour change study Routes to Inclusion and supported by wider evidence that 'community hubs' have a positive effect on social connections and networks.

We understand that in the context of tackling loneliness digital will need to be adapted for different groups e.g. for older people facing new challenges in life, for people who are homeless and living with the challenges of mental health and vulnerable women who may not have basic english skills and people who live with dementia and their carers.

The collective challenge:

Loneliness and social isolation has become deeply ingrained in our society. The causes and effects are complex and multi-faceted. Resolving the issues and lifting barriers so that all people have the opportunity to have meaningful and positive relationships and supportive social network will require a concerted and collective effort. We all have a part to play.

Central and Local Government, the NHS, Funders, Employers and others have the potential to mobilise an enormous set of resources to help change our culture and create the conditions. face to face and online, where people can connect on shared values and interests and build relationships of trust.

Schools, workplaces, parks, libraries, community venues, social media and community platforms are all places and organisations which can facilitate social networking.The benefits will be felt across many different government department areas, e.g. the potential impact on health and the economy.

For people who are more vulnerable and socially excluded and who are living in poverty there are greater and more complex barriers to overcome. Hyperlocal organisations and groups rooted in communities are well placed to support these people to make meaningful connections with others and feel less lonely and socially isolated.

Being able to connect with and chat to neighbours and other people in the community by learning English, gaining the skills to access peer support online to help manage long term health conditions, volunteering to support others to improve their digital skills and finding out about community activities are just some of the ways our programmes showcase how digital can open up a new window to the world for people who are lonely and socially isolated.

People who are not online are denied access to a whole range of opportunities which could enable them to connect with others.

A hyperlocal community approach blended with digital as an enabler can help to support people who are lonely and socially isolated to grow new friendships and social networks and have the opportunity to fully participate and feel valued as a member of our digital society.