The reliance on technology during the COVID-19 has grown considerably. Technology is now the main form of communication for many people using social applications such as Zoom, Twitter, FaceTime, and WhatsApp messaging. However, the pandemic has brought the “digital divide” to the fore, widening the divide between those able to access and use online support tools and those excluded from this support.
This reliance on technology will certainly remain in the short-term with digital exclusion continuing to be problematic while covid measures remain, however, there are longer-term issues relating specifically to digital exclusion and digital poverty. There is now an urgency to developing digital confidence to enable individuals to independently access online content. However, even among those with some digital skills, difficulties remain.
A recent study completed by some members of the research team1 highlighted the complexity of digital exclusion, as even older adults who owned smart devices and regularly used social media technology experienced barriers which negatively influenced technology use. Specifically, several biopsychosocial barriers impacted use of technology; physical functioning (dexterity & visual issues), self-efficacy, fear, culture and communication, and lack of social capital. It is essential to address the barriers to technology use to reduce this digital divide and increase inclusiveness of the use of technology.
One solution to address this is through inclusive design -co-designing digital devices / social applications with older people. Smartphones and tablets provide an affordable, accessible entry route to the digital world. However, the interfaces are not user intuitive and can be off putting for individuals who lack basic digital skills. Although there are apps which simplify smartphone interfaces (e.g. Grand Launcher), these have limited functionality: e.g. SOS button, SMS text, and flashlight, and are not representative of the needs of older people. There is an urgent need to co-develop an application that has the functionality to reflect their needs and build digital confidence.
Older people have been disproportionately affected by Covid. In part this is due to a lack of digital skills, which has widened inequalities between those who have access and those who do not. Data from ONS show that in the UK 4.3 million people in the UK have no digital skills and 6.4 million only have limited digital skills 3 .Key barriers to engagement with digital technologies include cost, lack of support, technology being perceived as complicated or it’s not for ‘people like me.’ 4
With no offline alternative for information and services, during the pandemic, those who were required to self-isolate and who had limited or no digital skills faced food insecurity, lacked social connection and faced increased risk of loneliness and social isolation. This proposal has potential to address these shortfalls- by simplifying digital access on existing smartphone or tablet where a customised or new launcher could include among other functions access to
Although older adults have a preference for simpler forms of technology,5 it is necessary for them to develop the necessary digital skills. Equally it is important that existing affordable, accessible technology can adapt to meet the needs of older people and other groups who lack digital skills. This is a steppingstone to engaging new users, building confidence, and giving basic skills that can lead to greater digital inclusion.
Market research of existing applications which simplify android interfaces, show that they have very limited functionality, which will not meet the needs of a population aged 50-100+. Equally, some existing launcher applications can be quite complex and are clearly designed for younger more digitally literate users. User reviews of such applications demonstrate they are not without their problems and can be ‘fiddly for a non tech person’(review Nov 2020)
Therefore, it is imperative that older people are engaged in co-developing digital platforms and devices that meet their needs. This proposed work is a vital first step in addressing this important issue.
Key benefits of a co-produced solution:
This work aligns with several key policy areas including the English and Welsh Loneliness Strategies (A Connected Society & Connected Communities) and the Welsh Government Prosperity for All, The Future Generations Act Wales and the UK Digital Strategy.
Without this work, older people and other digitally excluded groups will fall further behind. This is a particular concern in relation to digital health services, where those most in need of health and care service (older people, people with disabilities and chronic conditions, people living in disadvantaged circumstances) are those least likely to have digital skills or be able to use digital health services. Further disadvantaging them and widening existing health inequalities.
Evidence to UK Government
Marston, H.R., Morgan, D.J., Wilson-Menzfeld, G., Gates, J.R., & Turner, R. (2021). Written Evidence [PTC0018]. The long-term impact of the pandemic on towns and cities. UK Parliament: submitted 30th June 2021, published 6th July 2021. Available at https://committees.parliament.uk/writtenevidence/37464/pdf/
Publications & blog pieces
Note: Book chapter forthcoming.
A podcast is available to listen on the following platforms. In the podcast you will hear from members of the research team, our stakeholders and the participants themselves.
Co-producted bilingual (Welsh and English) icon booklet for individuals and organisations.