‘Is it in society’s interest to force people online?’

Research reveals ‘a significant minority’ of people who are proud not to use the internet. PublicTechnology asks the CEO of government advisory body BSG how industry and policymakers should respond

Credit: CollegeDegrees360/CC BY-SA 2.0

“Our view, as you may expect it to be, is that the internet has been an unashamed good,” says the Broadband Stakeholder Group (BSG) in its foreword to a new report. “From this starting point – and in our increasingly hyper-connected, always-on world – it is easy to assume that everyone either is or wants to be online.”

The BSG adds: “This report is an important corrective to that assumption.”

The most recently available numbers from the Office for National Statistics reveal that about one in ten UK adults are not connected to the internet. This equates to some 5.2 million people, the vast majority of whom – 8.4% of the country’s total adult population – have never been online.

The Digital Exclusion Research Report from analyst ComRes was commissioned by BSG – a government advisory body jointly funded by its communications industry sponsors and the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport – to try and better understand why those people remain offline.

“Do we want everyone who can be online to be so – or everyone who wants to be?”

To do so, researchers talked to 952 people who are not connected to the internet, and a further 40 who have only got online in the last 18 months.

The kind of people who participated in this study are those who are often targeted by digital inclusion initiatives aimed at addressing their potential lack of confidence, money, skills, or access to technology. 

While all of these no doubt continue to represent significant potential barriers to getting online, the research swiftly reveals that, for many people who do not use the internet, something else important is lacking: any interest in doing so.

Among the non-users surveyed, only 30% say that they would like to use the internet but are not able to. About the same proportion – 31% – indicate that they are physically unable to do so, because of manual dexterity impairments or limited eyesight, for example. 

One third sometimes ask family or friends to complete online tasks for them – but two-thirds say they have no need to do so. 

Fewer than one in four, 24%, feel like they are missing out in any way. More than double this amount – some 51% of respondents – are proud not to use the internet. A similar amount, 46%, said that they felt using the internet is antisocial.

In qualitative interviews, many respondents pointed to the fact that they value the physical exercise, sense of independence, and human contact that comes with, for example, visiting the bank or shopping on the high street – rather than doing so online. 

Some 64% believe that doing things online would actually take them longer than their existing offline process, while 70% say there are no online services in which they are interested.

All of which adds up to a whopping 93% of people who say they are unlikely to begin using the internet in the foreseeable future.

BSG concludes its foreword by asking: “Someone may be physically and mentally capable of being online but, if one of their only face-to-face interactions is at the Post Office or bank, then is it in society’s long-term interests to force them online for these services?”

‘No silver bullet’
Clearly, the existing range of online services – whether provided by businesses or government – is not sufficient to convince most non-users of the merits of using the web. 

The move towards smart TVs could provide some impetus, with the research finding that, if an internet connection was required to watch television, this would be enough to prompt 37% of non-users to get online.

But Matthew Evans, chief executive of the BSG, tells PublicTechnology that “there doesn’t seem to be a silver bullet” solution to reach the “significant minority” of people who remain offline – largely by choice.

“We normally try to come up with policy recommendations – but we struggled to here. In a sense, we weren’t quite sure what question to answer; do we want everyone who can be online to be so – or everyone who wants to be?,” he adds. “There is a risk in taking a face-to-face interaction – which is good for someone’s mental health and reducing loneliness – and replacing it with a digital service, which might be good in the long term for the country as a whole.”

The practical issues which might prevent someone from accessing the internet can invariably be solved, Evans says, with solutions such as assistive technologies and voice recognition. A more complicated issue is how to encourage people that the internet is worth their while.

The report says that most of the people who participated in the research typically conceive of the internet “in a narrow way”, and only consider how it could be used to replace tasks that they enjoy – such as shopping or talking to friends.

The research conducted with those who have only recently got online might point towards more compelling use cases.

Some 70% of these respondents said they found the internet useful for sharing messages and pictures, while 43% said the same of chatting to friends and family via videoconference.

5.2 million
Approximate number of UK adults that do not use the internet

Percentage of those who are not online that say they are ‘proud’ not to use the internet

Two thirds
Proportion of non-internet users who say they do not need to ask others to do things for them online

Target date by which charity the Good Things Foundation would like the UK to become a ‘100% digitally included nation’

Percentage of those who do not use the internet that feel they are missing out in any way

During in-depth interviews, a number of respondents spoke of how their new-found connectivity had enabled them to be in touch more frequently with loved ones in other parts of the country – or other parts of the world.

Evans says that, if it wants to encourage people to get online, “industry needs to do a lot more to address” the issue of those who simply do not want to do so.  He suggests that the internet’s advocates would be better served by focusing on what it will add to someone’s life, rather than what it will replace or change.

“We can keep the conversation focused on the real benefits, and the new experiences that they can have – the instant connection with family and friends around the world. Photos and videos are quite powerful as well,” he says. “Rather than saying ‘you can now bank online’ – which the survey results show raises more questions around security – we [should be] focusing on the human aspect.”

Evans adds: “One of the interviewees had a daughter in New Zealand, and his two best friends were in Spain and South Africa. He now sends them Facebook messages daily.”

“We can keep the conversation focused on the real benefits, and the new experiences that they can have… rather than saying ‘you can now bank online’.”

The BSG chief maintains that government and industry should continue to push for universal digital inclusion – even for the few million UK citizens who have, thus far, decided that they do not wish to be included.

Firstly, Evans says, getting online would provide those people with major “economic and social benefits”. He points to the work of social change charities The Joseph Rowntree Foundation and the Good Things Foundation in exposing “the significant financial cost of being offline”. This is in addition to the new experiences and services that those without the internet are deprived of.

“Secondly, it is about government digital services,” he says. “How many people offline is too many? That is a question that government needs to answer but if, [for example], you need 95% of people to be online and utilising a service to realise its cost savings, then you need to do more to encourage people to be online.”

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Sam Trendall

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