Digital divide in the UK

Digital divide

What’s the challenge?

In a digital world, computer skills are becoming more and more important. How can we make sure the most vulnerable sectors of UK society aren’t excluded and the internet is accessible to everyone?


  • 5.9 million adults in the UK have never used the internet
  • There are 4.1 million adults living in social housing that are offline
  • The South East had the highest proportion of recent internet users (90%) and Northern Ireland was the area with the lowest proportion (80%)
  • 27% of disabled adults (3.3 million) had never used the internet
  • Adults aged 16 to 24 years have consistently shown the highest rates of internet use
  • between 75% and 90% of jobs require at least some computer use
  • Offline households are missing out on estimated savings of £560 per year from shopping and paying bills online.Source: ONS 2015, National Housing Federation, The Tinder Foundation

The importance of digital equality

Today computer skills and knowledge of the internet can connect people to new and better jobs, open up the opportunity of flexible working from home, cheaper forms of communication and social interaction to community infrastructures and government services, improve access to learning opportunities and provide access to more convenient and often cheaper products and online services.

Digital inequality matters because those without access and the right combination of access, skills, motivation and knowledge are missing out on important areas of the digital world. This doesn’t just impact on individual lives but on families, communities, political processes, democracy, public services and the economic and social health of the nation as a whole.

Research shows a clear correlation between digital exclusion and social exclusion. This means that those already at a disadvantage and arguably with the most to gain from the internet are the least likely to be making use of it and become further disadvantaged by not using it.

What are the barriers to getting online?

1 Access

Affordability of equipment or usage. Even though prices for ICT equipment and connection time will almost certainly continue to decrease, cost will still remain a significant barrier for some excluded groups, even in the long term.

Pricing structures, as well as price itself, has an effect on take-up. For instance, the rapid adoption of mobile phones even by low-income groups is probably largely a result of more flexible and non-excluding pricing structures (such as ‘pay-as-you-go’ packages) than of traditional fixed-line telephone services. Internet take-up among low income groups has been much lower. Research has shown that non-users of the internet estimate the cost of use to be far higher than it actually is.

Lack of time to take training courses, or to travel to an internet café or UK online centre – or prioritising other activities over learning how to make use of technologies.

Lack of training or support in learning how to use a personal computer or the internet.

Low literacy levels – People are sometimes more willing to admit to a lack of knowledge about computers than to illiteracy. On the other hand, evaluation of UK online centres has found that engaging with computers and the internet has enabled people to identify and discuss literacy and numeracy difficulties which they had never addressed before.

Disabilities which may make accessibility devices or improvements in design necessary in order to make effective use of technologies.

Poor usability of interfaces – such as relevant websites – may also be an issue preventing effective use.

2 Motivation

Lack of interest or perceived need – Large numbers of people report that the reason they do not use the internet is that they have no need for it, or no interest. These numbers have fallen as the numbers of people using the internet have increased. But, as of February 2006, the ONS still found that 39% of non-internet users (representing 13% of the total adult population) said that they do not want to, need to, or have an interest in using the internet.

Cost/benefit ratio too high – Even if some benefit or interest in using the internet is assumed, it may be judged that the benefit is too small to justify what may be a high-value investment in computer equipment. Again, more affordable pricing schemes and flexible technologies may change this.

Lack of appropriate content – Provision of stimulating and/or useful content is crucial in attracting new users to ICT. The bias of existing content towards the social, cultural and economic priorities of earlier-adopters may act as a considerable disincentive to people trying to engage in new technologies.

3 Skills and confidence

Skills – Use of all ICT, and particularly of a traditional personal computer, is not straightforward, and may not be intuitive. The Skills for Life survey in 2003 found that large proportions of the population were not able to complete a series of basic functions using a Windows-based computer – even among regular computer users. In the consultations conducted as part of the Inclusion Through Innovation study, more respondents cited lack of training or skills as a problem which may prevent some groups from benefiting from ICT than those who cited lack of access.Touch-screen and more intuitive design is helping improve this.

Confidence in ability – Particularly a problem among those who do not have immediate family or friends who are internet users, and so do not get the help and guidance which many new users find valuable.

Concerns about security or undesirable material being available on the internet. This may affect both take-up and willingness. The Oxford Internet Survey in 2005 found that, among existing users, majorities are concerned about viruses (82% of computer users), unpleasant experiences when using email (60% of email users), and putting their privacy at risk (54% of internet users). Non-users have also been reported to have similar (though less specific) concerns – although also often recognising that these are factors to be aware of, rather than insurmountable barriers to internet use.

Issues about cybersecurity and privacy are growing.

Read more about the digital divide


Panel discussion

The Royal geographical Society (with IBG) held a panel discussion on 1 December 2009 to discuss the issue.

Rory Cellan-Jones, BBC’s Technology Correspondent
Rory started out at as a researcher on BBC Look North in Leeds in 1981, spending most of the early part of his career as a television reporter covering business and industry. In the mid-’90s, he discovered the internet which he describes as ‘a life-changing experience’.

As a business correspondent, it was the source of a whole new kind of story, as new companies were born, flourished and crashed within months. Rory covered it all for the BBC – and was even called the ‘Internet Correspondent’ for a few months in 2000 before deciding that the internet was over after the dot com bubble burst.

Rory returned to his previous role, but at home and at work, kept banging on about the profound changes the internet was bringing to our economy and the rest of our lives. At the beginning of 2007 Rory was made BBC’s Technology Correspondent. He now reports on the ever changing developments in the fast paced world of technology. Rory recently returned from Africa, where he was reporting on the birth of internet broadband in Africa.

Martha Lane Fox Government’s digital inclusion champion
Martha discussed her new role as Digital Inclusion Champion and the importance of ensuring that we don’t leave behind large numbers of already disadvantaged people in Britain. 39% of whom are over 65, 38% unemployed and 19% families with children.

“What we can be sure of is that 10 million people have never used the internet and of those, 4 million are the most economically disadvantaged, and they’re the people that I was asked by the government to look at.” Martha Lane Fox

“I believe there is a digital divide, but even worse than that we are creating a social and digital divide for the people that are already the most excluded, but yes I think we can really do something about it and the time is now to do that, to get political momentum, bring together all of the projects that are happening all over the country.” Martha Lane Fox

“People’s feelings of loneliness go down by 80% when they’re online and their confidence goes up by 60%. When you are talking about some of the most disenfranchised and excluded groups in society; those are interesting and important numbers.” Martha Lane Fox

Read a transcript of Martha Lane Fox’s talk

Aims of the Digital Inclusion Task Force

To challenge the public sector, the private sector and industry, and the third sector to work together to help disadvantaged people benefit from new technologies of every type and to raise the awareness of digital inclusion to the level of good public health. To reach out to individuals who are currently unaware of the opportunities available to help them embrace their lives and improve their life chances through technology.
Key Challenges

The government’s Digital Inclusion Task Force are aiming to target and benefit the 17 million people in the UK currently excluded from the benefits of digital technology. Particular focus is to be given to the estimated 13% of the general UK population (6 million people) who are both socially and digitally excluded.

10% most economically deprived – research by the government shows that there is a high correlation with social housing and lack of internet access.

Older people – to help address poverty, social isolation, health and enable them to live more independent lives in their community. Older groups are most likely to benefit from the take up of new technologies but many do not. Age Concern and Help the Aged and other third sector charities are involved in the Digital Inclusion Task Force

Socially excluded and minority groups – There are smaller groups for whom the sources of exclusion are multiple and serious – including factors like disability, learning difficulties, ethnic origin, location, culture or language. Both government and third sector networks are to be harnessed to deliver meaningful support to these groups. Other groups include offenders, people with mental health issues, those who are unemployed, early school leavers and those with literacy and numeracy skills needs.

Professor Tanya Byron, Clinical Psychologist, broadcaster and author
In 2007 Tanya was asked by the Prime Minister to conduct an independent review looking at the risks to children from exposure to potentially harmful or inappropriate material on the internet and in video games. The Byron Review is about preserving their right to take the risks that form an inherent part of children’s development, by enabling them to surf the internet and play video games in a safe and informed way.

In 2008 Tanya was made the first ever Chancellor of Edge Hill University, which started out as a non-denomination teacher training college for women in 1885.

Tanya designed and ran an NHS beacon awarded NHS and Care Staff training programme in the assessment and management of aggressive and violent behaviours.

Tanya now works one day a week as a Consultant in child and adolescent mental health in a general practice. In addition Tanya writes a weekly column for the Times newspaper and for several women’s magazines.

Predominantly Tanya works at the BBC presenting TV & Radio programmes on child behaviour, science and current affairs (Little Angels; Teen Angels; House of Tiny Tearaways; Panorama; How to Improve Your Memory – with Professor Robert Winston). Tanya is currently filming four one hour documentaries for BBC2 looking at: Sex; Death; Vanity and Spirituality.

Tanya has also published three books on child behaviour, the latest published by Penguin and is currently editing an encyclopedia of child development and the early years with Dorling Kindersley.


Peter Oakley a.k.a YouTube’s geriatric1927
Peter Oakley (20 August 1927 – 23 March 2014) was a pensioner from Bakewell, Derbyshire, England. He was better known by his pseudonym geriatric1927 on YouTube.

“I use the internet to talk with people from China to Sweden, England to America, practically everyday. It certainly has enriched my life. I couldn’t live without the internet now!” Peter Oakley

Making his YouTube debut in August 2006 with Telling it all, a series of five- to ten-minute autobiographical videos entitled, Peter gained immediate popularity with a wide section of the YouTube community, a leading member of the much heralded Web 2.0 generation of web sites, others being sites like MySpace and Wikipedia.

His unforeseen rise was widely reported by international media outlets and online news sources and blogs, gaining YouTube much publicity along the way. After resisting all media attention for a long time (including requests for interviews, photographs, and attempts to identify him), insisting that he only wished to converse with the YouTube community in an informal and personal way, Peter finally gave his first interview, for the BBC’s The Money Programme, which was aired on BBC Two on 16 February 2007. By that time he had over 50,000 subscribers on his YouTube channel and was ranked 34th most popular channel.

“Peter also starred in the hit song ‘My Generation’ with the Zimmers. He was a true star of the ether, and a nice kind modest one to boot. A credit to his generation.” Chris, internet user

Professor Michael Hulme, Lancaster University
Michael Hulme is Hon Professor and Associate Fellow of the Institute for Advanced Studies at Lancaster University, he is Director of the Social Futures Observatory specialising in exploring emergent social futures and the role of media and technology. He advises many leading global media/technology organisations, has spoken at many international conferences and is a regular contributor to the media and academic journals.

Lord Puttnam
Lord David Puttnam is an Oscar and BAFTA award-winning film producer. He also sits on the Labour benches in the House of Lords. Lord Puttnam was chairman of the National Film and Television School for 10 years and taught people such as Nick Park. He founded Skillset, which trains young people to become members of the film and television industries. In 2002 he was elected UK president of Unicef. He was the first chancellor of the University of Sunderland from 1997 until 13 July 2007. He was appointed an Honorary Doctor of Education during the School of Education and Lifelong Learning’s Academic Awards Ceremonies in his final week as Chancellor and was granted the Freedom of the City of Sunderland upon his retirement.

In 1998 he founded the National Teaching Awards and became its first chairman. He was the founding chairman of the General Teaching Council 2000-2002. He was appointed as chancellor of the Open University in 2006. He was also the Chairman of NESTA (The National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts) from 1998 until 2003. He is also chairman of Futurelab.

Dave Hassell, BECTA
Dave Hassell is Director of Content & Learning, Teaching and Inclusion at BECTA (formerly known as the British Educational Communications and Technology Agency). Becta’s objectives are to influence strategic direction and development of national education policy to best take advantage of technology and to develop a national digital infrastructure and resources strategy leading to greater national coherence.

“Not everyone has access to the internet, we need to improve the level of access people, to make certain all can benefit.” Dave Hassell, BECTA

Professor Danny Dorling on the geography of the web