New forms of digital inequality: Disparities in offline benefits from internet use

29 May 2015

There may be many disagreements amongst UK politicians in the run up to the election but the one thing that they do agree upon is the importance of making sure the UK becomes a digitally savvy nation. It is worrying in this context that the most recent report from the “From Digital Skills to Tangible Outcomes” project shows that many people struggle to translate their internet use into tangible offline benefits.

A tangible benefit might be finding a (better) job, increased knowledge or education, higher quality relationships and interactions, membership of groups or organisations, or improved personal well-being. As the chart above shows, undertaking an activity in the digital space does not automatically lead to achieving an outcome different from the outcome achieved when undertaking it offline. Depending on the outcome under investigation, around 50 to 75% of the respondents indicated that they did not achieve an outcome that they could not have achieved offline. It seems like getting the benefits of Internet use is easier for economic and individual outcomes than for cultural and social outcomes.

These findings suggest real problems for existing policies and interventions aiming to tackle digital inclusion. Existing evaluations tend to measure success in improvement of digital skills or, in more sophisticated designs, different ways of engaging with Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs). Underlying these measurements is the assumption that they are good indicators of someone actually achieving a related tangible and satisfying outcome in his or her everyday life.

That these indicators are unsatisfactory is demonstrated by our research findings, showing that use of the internet does not directly translate into tangible outcomes. For example, the pilot survey conducted in the Netherlands and the UK shows that doing online job searches has often been used as an indicator of employment benefits of digital inclusion, but this project shows that 54% indicated that they could have probably found the job they got through their online search offline as well, and while 52% indicated that the internet had influenced how they worked, 29% did not think it had influenced their job in a positive way. In the interviews conducted this was clear when one respondent explained this as follows: “So it has influenced my job completely, but it’s not to improve my job. If anything, it’s made me and a lot of other people a bit lazier at work (…) It has influenced how I do my job, but it’s made me worse”.

The report showed that there are social inequalities in the achievement of and satisfaction with the tangible outcomes from internet use. This complicates the work of those who design digital inclusion interventions using measures such as access, skills and engagement with ICTs as indicators, since these do not necessarily lead to tangible offline benefits especially for the more disadvantaged in society.

Upon closer examination there might also be positive news, as the report argues that to translate engagement with an online activity into a tangible outcome, having digital skills is essential, and this is an area where interventions can have an impact. Differences in digital skills between different socio-economic and socio-cultural groups lead to lower levels of achievement of and satisfaction with outcomes when people engage with an activity online.

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