Switching on Life Support: Bridging the Digital Divide During Coronavirus

The impact of digital connectivity on my everyday life has increased hugely over the years. Whether it’s messaging my friends on WhatsApp groups, sharing photos to Instagram, or sending money through internet banking, these actions have become ingrained into my daily lifestyle. And with the introduction of social-distancing measures earlier this year in response to the COVID-19 outbreak, I have never been more conscious of my dependency on the internet. Despite being physically isolated in my home, I found a sense of normality through frequent Zoom calls to my friends, group Netflix-Party screenings and remote games of Scrabble.

Photo by Christopher Gower on Unsplash

Whilst I was first to complain at the beginning of lockdown, it is easy to forget that I am a fortunate member of the “digitally included”. A 2018 report from the Office for National Statistics suggested as many as two-thirds of people aged over 75 and three out of ten aged 65 to 74 were deemed “non-internet users”. Despite shielding and social distancing measures protecting the physical health of this demographic, it has intensified the negative implications of this so called “digital exclusion” through reduced social interaction. With social disconnection and loneliness within the elderly having a strong correlation to increased instances of depression and anxiety, the importance of ensuring that everybody has access to the skills and hardware needed to access the digital world has never been more important.

Until very recently, my grandfather had a hard time getting to grips with technology. Tasks that seem second nature to me, such as sending an email or searching the web for information, were causing him a great deal of stress and anxiety. Anything technology-related had previously defaulted to my grandmother, who took great pride in her computer skills. Unlike my grandfather, she was always the first to adopt the latest trends, and was even the proud owner of a first generation Sony Aibo. My grandfather, now rising 96 and living alone, has had to rapidly learn how to use the internet in order to stay connected to his family. In a relatively short space of time, he has become comfortable using his iPad to make FaceTime calls, send emails and even use internet banking, proving it is possible to teach an old dog new tricks (*Aibo excluded). Despite our physical separation, we have been able to communicate more frequently than we did before the pandemic, and even participated in a Zoom family quiz in which my grandfather was quiz-master. He is very fortunate to have an extensive support network, with 12 tech-savvy grandchildren just a phone call away from providing technical assistance. Yet many on the wrong side of this “digital divide” do not have the luxury of a support network or access to the same resources.

“Please read this carefully! — If any sender other than your own name appears on this email I will have failed. My intention is to send emails to all people to whom I wish to send cards without the whole list appearing on their email. If a name other than yours appears on this, please tell me. (It won’t take long). If one does I will have failed again — despite the dazzling clarity of the instruction I received from Lizzie.”

“Just successfully switched this thing on and all seems well. Thanks very
much. How stupid can one be not to think of switching off and on again?
oh dear…”

“I asked Stephen to help me with the iPad — and the damn thing behaved perfectly… so I’m not going back to the Apple shop — at least not yet.”

- Tim, Grandfather

Initiatives such as AbilityNet and the lottery-funded One Digital project aim to provide digital skills to this group of people, through services such as 1:1 support, IT drop in sessions and larger-scale community events. Yet with the introduction of social distancing measures and shielding for the vulnerable, these services have been forced to scale back massively, and have mostly been reduced to telephone support services. The repercussions from the pandemic will have a lasting impact on the way we communicate, and efforts to provide sufficient training and resources to the elderly need to be maintained to prevent further inequality in an already vulnerable and marginalised group in society.

Photo by Brett Jordan on Unsplash

Software Developer & Makers.tech Graduate