Has COVID-19 widened the digital divide?

Digital inequality was already pervasive pre-pandemic, but the nationwide closure of shared spaces – offices, libraries, schools, and more – means our reliance on digital technology is greater than ever.

The big issues

Whether it was the local High Street, council services or simply listening to music, the switch to digital was long since underway before the word ‘lockdown’ entered public consciousness. But from March 2020, that process accelerated across the UK, with access to education, work, government support, essential food, money and even socialising shifting largely online.

Commentators have been highlighting digital inequalities since the 1990s, but the changed circumstances of the pandemic are reinforcing and adding to those inequalities in new ways that are unfolding day by day. It is urgent that we track these issues and understand how to intervene to support inclusive digital futures for all.

Our response

Working in partnership with Knowle West Media Centre, we co-designed and sent questionnaires to 5,500 households in Knowle West – an area of Bristol that features highly in the government’s multiple deprivation indices.

We combined the survey responses with insights and interviews conducted by Dr Helen Manchester at our School of Education. 

As well as investigating how COVID-19 was shaping patterns of digital exclusion, the survey aimed to uncover the reasons for it too. Are the main problems affordability, skills and confidence, perceived relevance to life, or something else? And are these problems different for different social groups?

The findings

These include: 

  • People experiencing multiple inequalities – low income, precarious employment, health conditions and food poverty – were particularly disadvantaged by digital disparities during lockdown, as information and services shifted online, and support networks were cut off. 

  • Only 47% per cent of those who needed a laptop/PC for home schooling had access to one. 

  • Residents without internet access quoted a range of factors, including cost (50% of respondents), confidence (45%), skills (45%), privacy and security concerns (45%).

Our recommendations 

We make ten recommendations for local policy makers, community leaders and industry.  These include:  

  • making it compulsory for providers to offer cheaper deals for lower-income households 

  • for public services to rapidly identify children without adequate digital resources such as devices, access to high-speed internet, data  

  • a publicly available map of connectivity across the city, to highlight low connectivity areas for priority action.

What’s next? 

We plan to share our learnings with people in Knowle West and are expanding the work to cover other communities across Bristol, starting with the Black South West Network and Babbasa 

If we don’t understand how digital inequalities emerge, how can we work together to make a difference?

Researchers

  • Professor Susan Halford
  • Dr Helen Manchester
  • Carolyn Hassan
  • Dr Faranak Hardcastle
  • Dr Artemio Cortez Ochoa
  • Dr Claire Lee
  • Carolina Valladares Celis  

Collaborators

  • Knowle West Media Centre
  • School of Education
  • Babbassa
  • Black South West Network

Funding

Project: Digital inequality – COVID and beyond

Funded by: This work was supported by the Elizabeth Blackwell Institute and Bristol Digital Futures Institute

Want to find out what we’ve been up to in the past year?

Download the BDFI Impact Report (PDF, 7,156kB)

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