Loneliness: How do we bridge the digital divide?
Isobel Roberts, Policy and Briefings Officer at The National Lottery Community Fund, reflects on learning from our recent online event exploring how charities and community organisations are working to bridge the digital divide and tackle loneliness.
A few weeks ago, I wrote about some of the insights that came out of a discussion we held with sector colleagues who convened around the issue of loneliness.
The digital divide was mentioned repeatedly as a key barrier for tackling loneliness in the time of coronavirus, so we brought together colleagues, collaborators and grant holders from across the sector in an online event to explore this issue further with voluntary and community organisations.
Here are some of the key insights I took away from the event.
Michelle Dawson, Programme Manager at Ageing Better Middlesbrough, described how the programme had been providing free 4G enabled devices and digital skills support to older people to keep them connected during lockdown.
She observed that there were different reasons that people might be digitally excluded, these included costs, not understanding the benefits of digital access and fear of falling prey to online scams.
Mike Theodoulou from the Centre for Building Social Action (CBSA) in West Wales noted that keeping young people connected in rural West Wales was made difficult by poor internet connectivity in the region, so that just providing devices to those who could not afford them was not always enough.
Mike described a solution CBSA were developing – a network of ‘pods’ based in community hubs across Carmarthenshire where young people can get online, network with peers and receive support from CBSA practitioners and their partners.
Funding Manager Richard Dowsett, part of our Ageing Better team, highlighted that older people might avoid using online shopping, for example, due to a deep sense of loyalty to local businesses and a desire to continue supporting them during times of financial hardship.
These examples show the importance of varied approaches to supporting those at risk of loneliness to get digitally connected, based on an understanding of the barriers individuals are facing.
The panel discussed how loneliness is not affecting all people equally. Michelle stated that multiple complex needs and poverty put people at greater risk of loneliness.
She also noted findings from the Office for National Statistics that those already experiencing loneliness before the pandemic were more likely to be experiencing higher anxiety as a result of COVID-19.
Those with disabilities or over 70 are less likely to have digital access, also putting them at greater risk at this time. Michelle made the point that when inequalities are making it harder for people to get online, we cannot wait for equality to catch up – so voluntary organisations are providing creative offline solutions to loneliness, such as well-being packs, alongside digital solutions.
Voluntary sector innovation
In addition to the examples given by the panel, attendees discussed how their organisations were tackling loneliness and the digital divide.
Solutions included Zoom social groups, community magazines made available online and in print and information packs for local voluntary groups sharing learning and resources about how best to support community members who are not online.
As Richard noted, while there may be a perception that the voluntary sector is slow-moving, the scale, pace and diligence with which the sector has moved in response to the pandemic is a credit to its adaptability.
Mike talked about how quickly communities had come together to provide support to those in need. He noted that while the third sector can be very effective, we can also be overly-focused on projects and beneficiaries rather than the community itself.
When communities identify issues or vulnerable community members that neither local government or voluntary organisations know about, voluntary organisations should learn from this.
Funders should also find ways to capture learning about the community response, and maintain the energy of this community mobilisation.
Sophy Proctor, Head of our Ageing Better programme, chaired the event. She concluded that from what we had heard about bridging the digital divide, the bridge has been built by the voluntary sector working in partnership with communities. This work is not the answer to the question of inequality – but it is one of the ways we can help tackle loneliness.