Leaving no-one behind in the digital world

Chris Ashworth from the Nominet Trust explains why his organisation is backing pilot schemes to help marginalised young people develop their skills with smartphones, computers and the world wide web.

It seems hard to imagine a young person that doesn’t know their way around the online world or a smartphone today. Indeed, for most, digital technology is an unquestionable part of their everyday lives.

The 300,000 young people left behind

However, as the 2017 Basic Digital Skills report suggests, despite an overall increase in the number of UK adults who have gained basic digital skills, at least 3% (circa 300,000) of those aged 15-24 are still being left behind. Indeed, ‘left behind’ is the key phrase. For many young people, the lack of digital skills has intensified social inequality as ‘digital’ becomes the default destination for the array of provisions on offer. The importance of this issue was highlighted in a recent House of Lords debate on the topic of ‘digital understanding’ – an important step to extend the concept beyond the need to complete specific digital tasks.

A huge number of tech companies have responded to the need to improve digital up-skilling with a range of CSR initiatives, but by and large these schemes have been built and tailored to the young people who have the support and motivation to improve their own digital skills. But, what about the young people, predominantly found among the 300,000, that don’t possess these traits? How do we reach out and help these disadvantaged young people?

Clearly if we’re to overcome this challenge we need to understand the extent to which technology and social exclusion are inextricably linked.

Government data provides much insight into young people’s educational achievement, family status and employment prospects. However, fundamentally this data has not been specifically correlated with data on digital skills and nor does it help demonstrate how the daily challenges facing young people are compounded by not having digital skills.

The three barriers to basic digital skills acquisition

Here at Nominet Trust we conducted our own research to explore the barriers preventing disadvantaged young people from gaining digital skills. The key finding was that those least likely to have digital skills are also most likely to be facing multiple forms of disadvantage.

This research identified three major barriers to basic digital skills acquisition: personal skills barriers, which include poor literacy and numeracy; circumstantial barriers which refer to home/living environment that preludes the acquisition of digital skills through lack of access to the internet; and systematic barriers such as where young people living in households with intergenerational unemployment can lack motivation to develop digital skills through formal training programmes.

These barriers are also intensified by frequent and chronic disruption to the lives of young people. The most prevalent causes of disruption are experience of the care and criminal justice system, moving home, family breakups and addiction or violence in the household.

To some, the need to develop basic life skills like literacy and numeracy may make the acquisition of digital skills seem less important. However, to the contrary, our research suggests that acquiring digital skills and having access to the internet could be fundamental to the support structure that enables young people to develop and practice basic life skills. This will also lead to multiple benefits including improved confidence, self-esteem and employability.

Clearly these are significant challenges that the typical digital skills programmes, barring some notable examples, are not set up to deal with. As such we need a completely new approach if we are to truly help these young people that find themselves on the wrong side of the digital divide

A new approach

This new approach needs to make far greater use of organisations and intermediaries that have a deep understanding in engaging young people and fostering trust, such as the third sector in general and expert youth organisations in particular. By encouraging the third sector to be more active participants in the delivery of digital skills then we can create new avenues to help the most disadvantaged and hardest to reach young people.

These expert youth organisations already have trusted 1:1 relationships with disadvantaged young people. The organisations have a thorough understanding of the complexity, circumstances and the needs of young people facing acute challenges. This means that they are better placed to understand the needs of their users and tailor support accordingly. And by working through these charities we can also explore more fully how digital skills can be embedded in the acquisition of other skills.

At Nominet Trust, we’re already piloting this approach through the Digital Reach programme. This evidence-based initiative, backed by £600,000 from us, will be testing a variety of approaches to solving this challenge, with the full findings expected in early 2018. However there is no doubt that if we are serious about addressing digital skills for disadvantaged young people that ‘more of the same’ is not sufficient. New models, that can deliver at scale and support every one of the 300,000 young people, are desperately needed. While it is great to see progress through Digital Reach, much more is still required.