Even before the pandemic, most people had begun to switch to a digital-by-default mode for their professional and personal lives. As people’s use of technology has advanced, governments and businesses have – if anything – been playing catch-up. Smart phones haven’t been around that long; the first iPhone was only introduced in 2007. And yet, we have witnessed a seismic growth of mobile technology ownership over that time. It has all been rather rapid.
By 2020, an astonishing 3.5 billion people around the world owned a smartphone, representing almost 45% of the global population. That 3.5 billion figure is expected to double by just 2023. According to the ONS, 96% of all households in the UK have access to at least one smart device. In relation to ethnicity, there is some consistency in smartphone usage, with all groups recording over 90% ownership levels (98.6% for Chinese, 95.6% for Asian, 92.8% for Black, and 90.5% for White). Regionally, usage figures range from 93% in both London and the South East, to 87.7% in the North East and 86.7% in Northern Ireland.
These aggregate figures are likely to mask significant variations within individual regions; hiding extremely concentrated areas where access to digital services is difficult and not solely for technical reasons but also because of problems that certain groups have with using and understanding the technology. There will be sections of UK society, particularly older cohorts and those in older industrial regions, who will not have easy or continuous access to digital technology. Amongst 16-24-year-olds, 98% have smartphones, whereas for the over 65s, that figure drops to 53%.
There will also be those who do not want to use technology for banking or democratic interaction with local government on planning and environmental issues, preferring more traditional means, even if they own or can access digital devices. And there will be cases where people lack the skills, confidence and motivation to use technology. For all these reasons, we should be careful not to embark on a digital-by-default approach to key services so readily but consider how a suite of tools – some digital, some non-digital – could be made available at any given time, combined with mechanisms to assist those who may need additional support.
A recent study by the UK communications regulator, Ofcom, revealed that an estimated 559,000 children do not have any internet access whatsoever. Around 1.8 million children do not have access to a laptop, desktop or tablet, and 880,000 children live in homes with only a mobile internet connection. The poorest families are those most likely to be digitally excluded. The Covid-19 pandemic lockdowns have revealed most starkly the vulnerability of children unable to be schooled effectively from home when that technology is not available or cannot be paid for. Another report by Ofcom, released in December 2020, revealed that 4.7 million households in the UK struggled to afford their telecom bills during the year. At a time when households are going to see rises in National Insurance payments and energy bills, such financial barriers could well have a dramatic impact on the ability of our children to learn.