Covid connections: Pandemic narrows digital divide as more Brits go online

Covid connections: Pandemic narrows digital divide as more Brits go online thumbnail

While it may be hard to find silver linings in lockdown, it appears the rapid shift to online services has had its benefits.

A surge in demand for internet services over the last year means the UK’s digital divide has narrowed even further, with more and more Brits getting connected.

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The proportion of homes without internet access has fallen from 11 per cent when the first lockdown hit in 2020 to just six per cent — or 1.5m — in March this year, according to new data from media regulator Ofcom.

Repeated lockdowns mean adults with previously limited digital skills have embraced online shopping, digital banking and video calling, while younger people have increasingly acted as IT support to older friends and relatives.

But while the figures are a fillip for efforts to reduce digital inequality across the UK, they showed a lack of digital capabilities continues to shut out the most vulnerable in society.

Brits over 65 were the most likely to have no internet access, while lower income households and the most financially vulnerable were also frequently cut off.

The research showed that the majority of people with no internet access at home had asked someone to do something for them online over the last year, with online shopping the most common request.

“For many people, lockdown will leave a lasting legacy of improved online access and better digital understanding. But for a significant minority of adults and children, it’s only served to intensify the digital divide,” said Yih-Choung Teh, Ofcom’s strategy and research group director.

“We’ll continue to work with government and other partner organisations to promote digital literacy and ensure that people of all ages and backgrounds are empowered to share in the benefits of the internet.”

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Screen time

Ofcom’s report showed online activities provided much-needed escapism during lockdown, with online gaming proving popular among both children and adults.

Additional data showed the amount of time children spent watching streaming services such as Netflix and Youtube on TV sets increased sharply, overtaking traditional broadcast viewing for the first time.

The figures highlight the growing pressure on linear TV services such as the BBC, ITV and Channel 4 as they look to adapt to the growing popularity of on-demand content.

But the findings were not all positive. Many parents admitted finding it hard to control their children’s screen time during the pandemic, with half of parents of five to 15 year-olds saying they relaxed their approach to internet use as a result of lockdown.

There was also an increase in the number of children who reported some sort of negative experience online over the last year.

New analysis showed that children with a physical or mental condition that impacts or limits their daily lives were more likely to have had a negative interaction online, such as being contacted by a stranger or feeling pressured to send photos or other personal information to someone.

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Andy Burrows, head of child safety online policy at the NSPCC, said the report showed the “scale of harm children face online” and called for new online harms laws to give greater powers to Ofcom to hold internet companies to account.

“Tech firms should be preparing for upcoming legislation by making changes to the design of their sites so they are safe for all children while also recognising that not all young users are the same and some are at greater risk of avoidable harm,” he said.

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