up if you got an iPhone for Christmas! Or a Kindle, Tablet or indeed any other
piece of strangely-named but oh-so cutting edge new technology. Even if you
weren’t lucky enough to have Father Christmas drop the latest gadget down the
chimney for you, you’ll probably have been close enough to see a friend’s in
action as they effortlessly navigate the internet in the palm of their hand,
check Twitter at the touch of a button…or waste half an hour trying to beat
their Angry Birds top score.
It’s official. Here in the UK we love all things digital. As 2011 drew to a close, a study by OFCOM named the UK Europe’s most digitally aware nation. We spend an average of over 12 hours online per week, watch more TV online than even our US counterparts and are more likely to do our shopping online too.
The internet and all it holds has been firmly cemented within the fabric of modern life and it’s clear that we’re not shy when it comes to embracing new technology. However, it’s not all plain surfing. As more and more businesses and organisations choose to place their services online first, in person second, there are those who have been left waiting on the verges of the digital super-highway.
Government figures show that 1 in 6 people – 8.4 million – have never been online, and of those, 4 million are among the most socially disadvantaged. A recent ONS report found that, of those that do not have access to the internet at their home, 19 per cent cite equipment costs being too high as the main reason.
And this doesn’t simply mean you can’t get on to Facebook. 20 per cent of contact with public services is performed online, and this is expected to grow. That’s access to information about benefits, information about housing, information about healthcare – the basic services which are supposed to support those most in need.
So what happens if you can’t afford a laptop to link your home to all that information, or you’re one of the growing number of people whose local libraries are under threat of closure? Well, like almost half (46%) of mobile subscribers, you might make the move to the smartphone as your primary internet connection.
Smartphones are fast overtaking other modes as the way we communicate with each other and share information. In its 2011 survey of individual and household internet access trends, the ONS found that 45 per cent of internet users use a mobile to get online – a growth of 6 million people using their phone to surf the web in just a year.
As contracts are renewed this New Year with free smartphones up for grabs, it’s clear that this trend will only continue. And when you consider that mobile companies are happy to offer heavily subsidised, low cost payment plans providing calling and texting privileges and access to the web on the go, it’s perhaps unsurprising that many lower income households are forgoing traditional internet access methods in favour of those that better fit their budgets and their lifestyles.
At Gingerbread, the national charity for single parent families, we launched our mobile site earlier this year in order to give Britain’s 1.9 million single parent families access to practical advice, support and information direct from their phone. While more than half of single parents (57 per cent) work, their families still face increased levels of poverty. 46 per cent of children in single parent families are poor, compared to 24 per cent of children in couple families. For many, a home computer just isn’t an affordable purchase.
But a smartphone is. And from where we’re sitting, it doesn’t look like an extravagance or a waste of money. To not have access to the growing wealth of information and guidance that’s inexorably moving online puts vulnerable parents at a very real disadvantage. If we want to bridge the digital divide, we need to work with the technology and the trends that are actually being used.
And it’s not just information that single parents are hunting for through their phones – it’s friendship too. Being a single parent, especially to young children, means a lot of long nights in alone. The Gingerbread mobile site allows single parents to interact with other mums and dads like them in our online forums, helping to fight some of the social isolation that they tell us is the worst part of single parenthood.
For Gingerbread, launching a mobile site wasn’t a gimmick to show we’re hip. It wasn’t done on a whim. It was a strategic move to help us reach more single parent families who need our advice and support. They use smartphones – so we use smartphone-friendly technology. It’s as simple as that.
Charities, government and those who provide public services need to pay attention to this shift and craft the way their information can be accessed, if they’re to serve the many and not the few. Information-sharing will continue to evolve. We need to ensure we evolve with it.