Catch 22: Poverty is the fundamental barrier to digital skills

11th May 2022

By Amy O’Donnell, Senior Programme Manager, Nominet Social Impact 

Nominet has partnered with Catch 22 and Bean Research to examine and understand some of the barriers people face in attaining digital skills.  

Our first paper, launched at the end of 2021, laid out what some of these barriers are. We are delighted to launch the second paper in the series which looks at who is being most impacted, and those who are being left behind. The reality we face is a substantial digital skills gap in the UK. The 2021 Nominet Digital Youth Index revealed that half of young people are teaching themselves digital skills, and those who are not in any form of education, employment or training are even more likely to do so (73%). 

Catch 22 second research paper cover image

Government policies, corporate strategies and civil society initiatives are involved in designing digital strategies or solutions to attempt to level the playing field in the digital skills arena. In working to address the digital skills gap, society falls all too often into the trap of identifying a single target group and assuming they are all affected in exactly the same way. Research is commonly based on macro data with insight from broad demographic groups such as gender, ethnicity or age. 

By contrast, our research delivers more detail, lifting back the layers and analysing cross-cutting dynamics like economic challenges, systemic social issues and the nuances of personal circumstances, which offers a more complete picture.  

In this research the interviewees highlighted poverty as the most fundamental barrier to digital access for young people. While that may not be the biggest surprise, what struck me is how deeply entrenched the knock-on effects of digital poverty are. It’s important to acknowledge that poverty is not static. Issues of poverty can arise in ways that are unpredictable and may lead to critical disadvantages in terms of pathways to education or employment. People living in multiple occupancy households, who are in or leaving care, who lack digital role models – these realities do not exist in isolation and indeed many relate to poverty and each other.  

There are strong messages in this research that those designing strategies need to hear. Headteachers spoke to young people for whom access to publicly funded hardware (that we saw especially in response to the initial lock downs in the pandemic) was made redundant by a lack of functional Wi-Fi, and in some cases by not even having the electricity needed to charge the devices. “We’re talking about kids with no oven, never mind Wi-Fi,” was an expression used by one interviewee, and this is a situation that is set to worsen as the cost-of-living crisis deepens.  

Today we exist in a world where the electricity to charge your device – something many of us take for granted – is now a very real barrier for some to digital access, skills and opportunities. From April 2022 the cost of energy has risen by more than 50% a year, with no signs of reducing in the foreseeable future, the problem will become even more pronounced.  

Barriers to digital skills are further compounded by geography. While there may be some assumptions that digital skills offer levelling opportunities, or can contribute to social mobility, the research found that where young people live also affects their ability to develop digital skills. The government has emphasised the development of tech hubs around the country and outside main urban areas as an illustration of expanding digital opportunities for young people, but our research found that tech hubs are not in places where people need them most.  

One of the biggest points our research drives home is that structural inequalities in society are mirrored and often magnified in digital realities. Our launch event included discussion on the need for more integration of digital skills across youth services, education and safeguarding. Rather than a standalone or separate strategy, we need to meet young people where they are to help realise the role digital skills play in meeting their priorities.  

What’s also important is that while this is a relatively new issue, we are already beginning to see the problems spin out of control. Those who have digital skills go on to design digital services, and this in turn affects who ends up using them – so the gap is only set to widen. If we are to develop truly inclusive solutions, we must meet the diverse needs of individuals and focus on ways digital skills can be a step to being a part of creating solutions. And this in turn can enable inclusion. 

You can read more about the Catch 22 and Nominet insights into digital disadvantage, carried out by Bean Research, in Paper 2.