Pandemic exposed ‘pervasive’ nature of digital exclusion as families struggled to get online

A children’s charity has highlighted the ‘pervasive’ nature of digital exclusion and urged government to look more closely at the issue of connectivity for Scotland’s most disadvantaged communities.

Aberlour, which works with children and families in some of the most deprived parts of the country, said that it discovered at the outset of the pandemic just how widespread an issue digital connectivity was and that huge sections of society were unable to get online.

Connecting Scotland – a nationwide Scottish Government-backed programme to distribute digital devices and data to the poorest communities – has been able to help over 17,000 people with tablets, laptops and data since lockdown, and the £43m funding package will aim to reach 50,000 in total by next year.

However, Martin Canavan, Head of Policy and Participation at Aberlour, told a Scottish Parliament Social Security Committee hearing on Thursday: “I think one of the things that we discovered or became apparent, I should say, very early on, was just how pervasive digital exclusion is, as an issue for so many families – the families that we work with, for example struggling families who don’t have access, who don’t have devices; or if they do, they don’t have access to broadband or data. And I think it was probably an inequality that clearly existed previously but because of the way in which we all moved indoors and started using our phones and our laptops to communicate, it became quite apparent that there was a huge section of society, children, families and communities simply didn’t have that access.”

Canavan said that the charity did “what it could” working with Children First, The Scottish Government and the Connecting Scotland fund to ensure that children and families could remain connected – and that children could access education – during lockdown and to Aberlour’s support services, which were almost entirely moved online as a result of the coronavirus restrictions.

But he told MSPs that government should look more closely at the issue in terms of digital connectivity now being considered as more than a luxury, to a necessity, in order to support people to be able to continue to function and maintain their wellbeing and mental health.

He said: “It’s clearly been an issue and I think it’s been addressed in some regards. Scottish Government have obviously committed to doing what they can but I think we need to look at it much more closely as an issue and recognise that digital connection is no longer a luxury but it’s absolutely crucial and essential for families, all families, to function and be connected to their communities and be able to access all the services they need including social security and welfare.”

Sally Dyson, Head of Digital Participation, Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations, highlighted the role of ‘digital champions’ who are trusted individuals working for local charities to help people get online and develop the confidence to use digital.

She said: “This isn’t just with a device – this is also with a device linked to somebody that usually is known so that they are a digital champion that they’re helped and supported and that their confidence develops to go online. In particular we know that one of the biggest barriers to people getting online is that they don’t feel safe there, and we know that there has been an increase in all sorts of scams over this period of time so having that digital champion, that known, trusted person who’s there to help somebody through that is absolutely critical. And more often than not helping them to get online has been about something that they enjoy, whether it’s just having a blether, whether it’s about a hobby, an interest, and that leads to confidence around some of the other things that they need to engage with.”