By Dan Jellinek
The concept of ‘digital exclusion’ might seem simple enough, but it is actually a highly complex field to define and analyse, and academics and policymakers are divided on the best ways to address it, a City University, London seminar heard last week.
‘Digital inclusion and social exclusion: is there a relationship and what are the policy implications?’ was addressed by Ellen Helsper, lecturer in media and communications at the London School of Economics and Political Science.
Across the UK, and the whole developed world, the proportion of people not using the internet seems to be levelling off at between 20%-30%, Helsper said. Academics had developed four broad theory types covering the effects of digital exclusion, and how important a factor it is in social exclusion more generally, she said.
The first is that it has little or no effect, although this was not a widely-held or popular theory, not least because if true, it would render large swathes of government policy and academic research meaningless, Helsper said.
The second, ‘equalising’ theory holds that the reduction of digital exclusion reduces disadvantage by engaging people more in areas like education. “Sadly, there is not much evidence for this”, she said.
The third theory is that of ‘neutralisation’. This suggests that technology use in itself cannot significantly improve people’s social situation, but for those who do not use it, the social gap will widen, so digital inclusion is needed simply to maintain “the status quo of inequality”. There is more evidence for this theory, Helsper said.
Finally comes the bleakest theory of all: that of the ‘vicious cycle’. According to this theory, “Even if we engage everyone with technology, the way in which we engage is so different that the gaps will still widen, because the socially disadvantaged will not use the internet for uses such as education but for uses like gaming, so the gaps get bigger and bigger.”
Whatever the implications, it is clear that over time, the relationship between social disadvantage and use of the internet has remained stable, so patterns of internet use closely track patterns of social deprivation, she said.
Across Europe, we also find that areas of low take-up and use are poorer areas, and so the main theories relating to causes of digital exclusion (rather than their effects) tend to revolve around cost, Elsper said.
However, if you talk to people in these areas, you receive a more complex response about the reasons for their non-use of the internet such as discrimination faced by certain sections of the community. Theoreticians and policymakers are therefore now trying to look beyond the economic indicators, she said.
It is also becoming clearer that different types of access are better for different types of excluded groups, for example that home access is better than access in a library or other public place, because people have time to play around with it more.
But levels of home access are again linked to all traditional indicators of social exclusion such as disability, Helsper said. Among the disabled population, 59% do not have home access, compared with just 29% of the general population.
Accordingly, the focus of analysts has switched towards models that go beyond access and use into areas like skills, confidence, attitude and motivation, she said.
“People have started thinking differently about skills: they are not just asking how good at it people think they are, but are looking at things like critical online skills – whether people know how good an information source is – or creative skills, can you create content online?”
When it comes to confidence levels, we find that people with disabilities have lower scores, Helsper said. And the same is true for attitude and motivation, which looks at whether people see the value of using digital technologies even after they have the necessary access and skills: the average score for positive attitude stands at 3.1 out of 5 for disabled adults compared to 3.3 for non-disabled adults; and 3.4/5 for disabled teenagers compared with 3.8/5 for non-disabled teenagers.
An even newer measure of exclusion is that of digital ‘engagement’, she said. This measures not just whether people have access to the internet, or have the skills or even the motivation to use it for sustained periods of time, but how deeply they use it and in what ways – do they use it for a wide variety of activities?
“It is a parallel argument to that of education: people are now saying we need to focus on the ways people are becoming engaged. Engagement views activity in a more social environment, geared around technologies – people exchanging information with each other, for example. It is not something that you have to do.”
There are controversies inherent in this kind of analysis, Helsper said, because it often can seem to involve value judgments as to what type of online activity is more valuable than another kind.
“There is a tendency to talk about digital participation, but I don’t really like that term because it comes from the area of civic participation, the old view of the value of doing something active in society, but in fact if kids do gaming or social networks, they may be included.
“But I don’t use digital inclusion any more as a term, either – what I tend to be talking about now is digital engagement.”
The opposite – disengagement – may sometimes be related to the fact that not much content is available for some social groups, “because the internet was created by stereotypical white middle-aged men”. For example the types of jobs some people may be looking for may not be widely advertised on internet job sites.
Ultimately, of the three main popular current theories mentioned at the opening of the seminar – equalising, neutralisation and vicious cycle – it is fair to say that all are true in some measure or other or at some time or other, depending on the type of engagement, or type of group you are looking at, Helsper said.
There are other encouraging signs, however, such as ‘proxy use’: research shows that one third of non-users have somebody else who uses the internet for them, so they are part of networks which allow them access to the technology, she said. People with disabilities tend to rely on children for proxy use, whereas people without disabilities tend to rely on friends or colleagues. “In the health and social service sector, this is an important finding”.
Another possible hidden positive is that the benefits of have digital access or being engaged may not be easy to measure because they may accrue in areas unrelated to the specific activity, Elsper said. “So if you use technology in a geography class, it may not necessarily improve grades or attendance in that class, but it could boost confidence in a completely different area.”
In this and all areas relating to digital exclusion, empirical research is “very much a work in progress”, Helsper said.
In discussion at the end of the seminar, one delegate summed up a key shortfall of any public policy that attempts to address digital exclusion purely by providing more people with access to the internet.
“If you build hospitals in poor areas, and provide lots of doctors in them, it will not necessarily improve people’s health in that area, that has been shown to be true. The same is true about giving people access, it won’t necessarily mean they are more digitally included.”