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Supporting Scotland's vibrant voluntary sector

Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations

The Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations is the membership organisation for Scotland's charities, voluntary organisations and social enterprises. Charity registered in Scotland SC003558. Registered office Mansfield Traquair Centre, 15 Mansfield Place, Edinburgh EH3 6BB.

Digital inclusion in the UK: how are things for 2023? 

It’s the most wonderful time of the year…  

Before I’m berated for premature festive enthusiasm, I’d like to make it clear I’m referring to the release of this year’s Lloyd’s Consumer Digital Index. This is our most reliable and consistent indicator of the digital capabilities and skills of people in the UK. It allows us to get a sense of the issues facing people on their digital journey.  

Let’s dive into some of the fascinating data and have a think about what it means for the organisations, groups, people and partnerships that we work with.  

What’s changed? 

Starkly, there are fewer people online this year than there were last year. 96% of people in the UK are online, which is down 3% on 2022. This always comes with the caveat that the Office for National Statistics definition of ‘online’ means having accessed the internet in the last three months. We know that being digitally included is about frequent, sustained access to the internet and so a refreshed definition is required. 

Helpfully, we can look at digital capability to get a truer sense of the digital divide. Digital capability measures more than just usage and looks at engagement and confidence. The overall picture across the UK is positive – although internet usage might be down, those who are online are deepening their engagement and improving their confidence. People with very high digital engagement has improved 2% over the last year. We know that digital inclusion is not a static state – and so it’s heartening to see there are now fewer people with low and very low digital capability. On the whole, this is a positive.  

Why are people still offline? 

For the first time in the history of the Consumer Digital Index we’re seeing a decrease in the proportion of people that are online. Last year, most people who were offline said it was a personal choice but given the cost-of-living crisis that is impacting millions of households across the UK it’s likely that people are being pushed offline against their will.  

Aside from the increased cost implications of being online, there are two key barriers that remain unchanged from last year: 

  • The motivation and interest to get online remains a key blocker for people, with 14% of offline people saying they just have no interest in the internet. A further 11% of people think that the internet is too complicated for them to use, raising issues around the lack of inclusive design in services, apps and websites.  
  • The fear of scams, fraud and online safety is another issue. The Essential Digital Skill of staying safe, legal and confident online is a frequent struggle for even those who are online – as much as 32% of the UK’s adults don’t have all the online safety skills they need. This puts them at risk of a number of online harms and increases the fear factor for those offline.  

The cost of living is having a real impact on digital engagement  

A key theme in this year’s report is the impact of the cost-of-living crisis on digital engagement. The crisis is reinforcing inequalities and barriers to digital inclusion, widening the gap between the online and offline and highlighting the difference digital makes to our lives.  

One way to demonstrate the rapidly growing inequalities is looking at the impact on the poverty premium. Last year, those with the highest digital capabilities saved £659 more than those with the lowest capabilities. This year, that figure has shot to over £900.  

The crisis presents increased barriers not just for ‘traditionally’ excluded people, but challenges assumptions about who we think of as being online. Younger people are being significantly impacted by increasing costs of digital access. Rising costs have impacted the online activity of younger people (those aged 25 – 34) twice as much as older people (those aged 65+).  

Increased costs and the decision to change data and internet behaviours is forcing people to turn to public Wi-Fi to save on mobile data. 8% of people accessed the internet this way to save money, putting their data at risk and potentially further fuelling fears around fraud and exposure to scams. For those that have kept access to internet at home, almost a quarter of people in the UK have been forced to look for cheaper deals – and 7% won’t be accessing their own internet connection to afford other bills. 10% of people offline don’t currently have access to a device, either.  

There is also a systemic problem in that increasing costs and tighter budgets are preventing people who are already locked out of the digital environment from gaining access in the first place. This creates a cycle of exclusion with no clear end point.  

What about skills? 

There is good news when it comes to skills. Across the board, skills have been improving and the depth of ability in each Essential Digital Skill area is improving too.  

Scotland remains a leader in the UK for Essential Digital Skills, beating the UK average in terms of those with Foundation and Work skills. 92% of Scots have their Essential Digital Skills for Life and we’ve boosted our skills for Work by 3% over the last 12 months.  

Looking at Work skills specifically, there has been a significant improvement of 4% of people across the UK with all the skills they need for work. 46% of people in the UK can now do all 20 tasks included in these skills, which is a 5% improvement on last year. The depth of skill is improving across all five areas, but there remains significant work to make sure everyone reaches where they need to be.  

The voluntary sector stands out as the leading sector for staff having some of their Essential Digital Skills for Work. 97% of our workforce has skills, but only 53% can complete all tasks.  

The steady improvement across skill levels in the UK is testament to the organisations and individuals that drive and push for digital inclusion. Celebrating our collective success is important – barriers to upskilling are demonstratively being broken down in communities and workplaces across the country.  

Where do we go from here? 

The Lloyds report gives us a lot of data to consider. Some of the news is great – the deepening engagement with the online environment presents opportunities for individuals to improve their lives and for organisations to facilitate more equitable access to services. Improvements across the board in Essential Digital Skills proves that there’s no complacency when it comes to supporting people online, and more organisations and businesses are recognising their responsibility to upskilling their staff.  

What is concerning is the hard evidence that the cost-of-living crisis is having a significant and damaging impact on people’s digital lives. At a time when the internet can help us to unlock and improve financial capabilities, the unaffordability of sustaining a connection or appropriate device is forcing people to re-evaluate their priorities and stay or become locked in a cycle of poverty.  

For the first time, we are seeing fewer people classed as online. There are always a range of complex reasons behind why someone’s digital behaviours change but it’s clear that cost, motivation and fear play leading roles in preventing access. We know that the internet can be life-changing for most – it’s a connection to a wider world of fun, services, opportunities and advantages. It can also be damaging to our finances, our wellbeing and our environment. There is a need to strike the right balance and support people to access the internet is a sustainable and ethical way by building their capacity to protect themselves from harm. Building this confidence and motivation relies on delivering person-centred support.  

It can feel overwhelming in the age of polycrisis to think about what we can do to support people that need it. We believe that digital inclusion is everyone’s responsibility, and that’s why we launched our Digital Inclusion Roadmap this month. It’s packed full of actions that people and organisations can take to pave the way to a fairer digital society.  

The most pressing action we can take, however, is to keep going.   

Last modified on 1 December 2023