Digital isolation: The vulnerable people left behind

By Chris Quevatre
BBC News Online

image source, Getty Images
image captionMobile phones like this have always been fine for making calls but not for completing complicated online forms

Whether it's banking, food delivery or a local taxi company, finding out your favourite services are available online is normally a happy moment - it's often faster and more convenient.

However, for the most vulnerable people in society, online services for essentials such as housing, job applications and benefits can be inaccessible.

Harvey is only 16, but is living in supported housing in Redruth, Cornwall, after experiencing a breakdown in communication with his family.

"I live in a shared house. It's a shared kitchen, but I get my own bedroom," explains Harvey. "The people I live with are pretty much my best mates at the minute."

He wants to find a job in the construction industry, saying: "The way my brain works is like a builder's mind. I like knowing how things are built and I want to help build stuff."

So Harvey is going to find a job and a permanent place to live - that's his plan. But unfortunately, most of the services he needs access to in order to get his life back on track involve using the internet and he's struggling to tackle what is called "digital isolation".

image source, Getty Images
image captionWhile the job centre has computers, they're often already taken

"Digital isolation is when people find themselves in a position where they can't access the internet or digital media and devices as much as other people", explains Bibi Reisdorf, an assistant professor in communication studies at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.

"In theory, everyone can access the internet, maybe at a library, community centre or at a friend's house, but there are different levels of access."

Digital isolation is "surprisingly prevalent", according to Dr Reisdorf, with western countries seeing a rise in "mobile dependence". That doesn't mean people who are addicted to their mobile phones, it's when your mobile is your only access to the internet.

image source, University of North Carolina
image caption"The people who are really in need of public services the most have a really hard time accessing them," says Dr Bibi Reisdorf

For Harvey, his phone doesn't hold the answers.

"I have this old 'brick' for a mobile phone, and that's it," he said.

A smartphone that can connect to the internet is not within reach for him at the moment.

"I don't think I can live on the amount of money I get every two weeks if I get a phone. It's really difficult to write up my CV and look for jobs."

Applying for a job is daunting enough, especially if you're young and lacking work experience.

But for people who don't have things such as a mobile phone or an email address - basics for much of the population - it becomes much more complicated.

"They've got that other barrier, which is not being able to be contacted by employers. So if they get offered an interview, who do they put down?" asks Emma Hamblin.

"It's a really simple thing we take for granted."

image source, Getty Images
image captionWriting and sending CVs is difficult on a phone, and getting responses isn't easy when you don't have a phone number or email address

Emma works with Harvey as part of a project called Game Changer, run by the Real Ideas Organisation, which supports people between the ages of 15 and 24 who are looking for a job or trying to get into education and training.

She is based in west Cornwall, a particularly rural area where transport can be expensive.

"If you're not in work, education or training and you are on benefits - which is about £250 a month - you still have to pay your service charge, your food, your electric and your gas," she said.

"You aren't left with a lot of money at the end of the month to pay for transport."

Being able to travel to somewhere with free internet is so important to those who don't have a connection, and are based in a rural area.

"Some young people I work with live a good train ride away from their job centre," Emma said.

"If they can't afford to go to the job centre weekly to use the computers there, they are then left without access to any sort of form of internet or social media, or anything like that, to communicate with the outside world, job search and deal with their universal credit claims online as well."

image source, Getty Images
image captionIt's not only people sleeping rough who struggle to access the internet, it's a big problem for people in temporary housing as well

Harvey has a social worker who has helped him to work with his local job centre.

Luckily he lives nearby, so transport is not an issue.

There are computers he can use there, although they are often already in use, and the nearby library only opens for limited hours.

Harvey doesn't have regular access to an email account, and therefore hasn't been able to add one to his CV for potential employers to get in contact.

As well as job applications and housing, Harvey has to apply for benefits online.

He hasn't got the regular access he needs to log in to his Universal Credit journal, and the job centre appointments come through online as well.

Harvey has already missed one appointment because he had no way of knowing about it, and without any phone credit or internet, there is no way of rescheduling it.

Anyone who misses too many appointments, has their benefits stopped and has to reapply.

Fortunately, Harvey is far from that point yet.

A government spokeswoman said: "A freephone telephone helpline is available for claimants to make and manage a Universal Credit claim, while home visits can be arranged in certain circumstances.

"The Help to Claim service provides additional support for those claiming benefits."

image captionHarvey can't access universal credit on his phone, and has missed an appointment as a result

Dr Reisdorf's research has shown "a very strong correlation" between digital isolation and the most vulnerable people in our societies.

"We would call it a 'double whammy' - the people who are really in need of public services the most have a really hard time accessing them," she said.

Other than recognising the issue, Dr Reisdorf says the other way government can help is by promoting digital skills.

"Technology keeps moving forward at such a fast pace, and people keep falling behind.

"The fewer opportunities you have, the less opportunity you have to increase your skills.

"If you keep falling behind, it makes everything more frustrating."

'I felt like I was standing naked'

Gerry was evicted from his house on Christmas Day last year and found himself homeless.

Thanks to the "generosity of friends", the 63-year-old, from Paignton in Devon, never found himself sleeping on the streets but had no permanent residence.

"I was applying for Universal Credit which is now all hi-tech - you can't just walk in," he said.

"Computers are available at the library, which is brilliant for people who can use computers, but the library staff will not give you any tuition because they're not paid to do that.

"I felt like I was standing naked in front of a computer, completely vulnerable and not knowing what's going on.

"The whole experience is disorienting, its dizzying - it's quite terrifying for people like myself."

Gerry said he was close to "sticking two fingers up to the computer screen" when he found a homeless shelter called Thrive.

"They really appreciated that there are people like me who are further disadvantaged when forced to use technology," he said.

image source, Getty Images
image captionThe library is a great place to use the internet, although they often have limited hours, and aren't always nearby

Digital isolation is an issue that homeless charities are seeing become "widespread", as more and more lifeline services move online.

"My team use the internet every day to help people in one-to-one coaching sessions," said Fiona Smith, a progression manager at Crisis.

"But for people who are destitute, it's quite a significant challenge just to access basic services that should be open to everyone.

"Lots of temporary accommodation hostels have ICT suites in them, but many people who need these services are lacking the skills to be able to use them. It becomes a training issue."

Crisis provides weekly ICT training classes to educate people on how to use the internet safely, but accepted it was a "drop in the ocean" compared to the scale of the problem.

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