UK's cost-of-living crisis deepens digital divides
A pupil works during a lesson, in a High School, in Doncaster, Britain, February 20, 2023. REUTERS/Molly Darlington
What’s the context?
Rising costs are making it harder for vulnerable groups - from children to the elderly - to access tech and online services
- Tech and internet costs rise as inflation tops 10%
- COVID-19 pandemic pushed many services online
- Lawmakers to examine cost of living and digital exclusion
LONDON - Starting a new school can be daunting, but for British pupil Archie Ruff there was a silver lining – a free laptop to help him keep up with his work.
The laptop, loaned to him by a school programme that provides computers to children from lower-income households, was a relief for his parents too, as inflation running at more than 10% eats into the family's spending power.
"In the past couple of years, post-COVID, things just seem to have spiralled in terms of costs," Archie's mother, Karen Ruff, who works as a care assistant, told Context over a video call from her son's school in the central English city of Birmingham.
"I look at the figures and every month, trying to move things around to work out what it is that we can miss out on."
British inflation is running at 10.4%, causing a cost-of-living crisis that rights groups and researchers say is widening digital divides for poorer households who may be forced to cut back on non-essentials such as tech and internet costs.
Archie, 11, has dyslexia and attention deficit disorder which affect his ability to take notes and spell. Having his own laptop has helped him enormously, his father said.
"When he writes things down they're illegible a lot of the time. He can't even read his own handwriting," said Leon Ruff, a medical secretary.
"But he's quite confident with technology ... It gives him more confidence as well, because he's happier."
The Summit Learning Trust, a consortium of seven schools and one further education college, has provided hardware and wi-fi services to Archie and 200 other students at his school alone.
About 60% of the trust's 8,000 students come from lower-income backgrounds and 15% have benefitted from its digital assistance programme.
"The sector as a whole was certainly surprised by the level of digital poverty that we were faced with", said Vince Green, the chief executive of the trust.
Strong digital connectivity enables pupils to work independently, Green said, and supports those who have to be out of school for medical reasons.
Schools have also had to stay open for longer so students have access to the internet and electricity to complete their homework, Green said, which has contributed to a 300% rise in the trust's average monthly energy bills.
But the problem goes beyond just schools. In 2022, Britain's communications regulator Ofcom reported that 6% of homes did not have any access to the internet, while another 5% relied solely on mobile internet connections.
It said 2 million households had difficulties in affording internet access in 2021, and poorer, disabled and older citizens are more likely to suffer digital exclusion.
British lawmakers in February launched an inquiry looking at how rising living costs are affecting digital exclusion.
"The ability and resources to operate effectively online are increasingly vital for everyone," said Baroness Stowell of Beeston, chair of the Communications and Digital Committee.
"Tackling the digital divide will be vital for delivering growth and economic prosperity."
Ofcom is also reviewing in-contract price rises, and has raised concerns that inflation-linked hikes in broadband and mobile bills are causing uncertainty for customers.
Many consumers are facing price rises of above 14% in the coming months under the terms of contracts with suppliers.
Large numbers of older people are impacted by rising costs, while many are also unfamiliar with tech devices that are now needed to access a growing number of shops and services.
Ruth Sinclair, a 79-year-old retiree in Scotland, received her first tablet computer nine months ago as part of a scheme from Glasgow's Golden Generation, a charity which distributes the devices to older people.
Sinclair said she had noticed more services shutting down or moving online since the pandemic, such as healthcare, retail, and consumer services, and has noticed her bills rising.
"I'm managing alright, but ... next month the broadband is going up," she said.
Margret Carlyle, an 82-year-old retiree who is also part of the scheme, is using her tablet to book medical appointments, order prescriptions, and stay in touch with her son in the Philippines.
"I don't think I could have afforded (a tablet). It never really entered my head," she said.
Before 2022, Sinclair and Carlyle would have been two of the 3 million people aged over 55 in the UK who have never used the internet, according to Natalie Turner, a deputy director at the Centre for Ageing Better charity.
"There are already a number of barriers that prevent older people from getting online," she said.
"We have considerable concerns if the cost-of-living crisis is creating a further barrier."
(Reporting by Adam Smith, Editing by Sonia Elks)
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