Digital Poverty

Being a member of the digital community is taken for granted by most New Zealanders and having both a stable Internet connection and an accessible device is so much a part of our world that we often forget they are there. Reaching this level of ‘digital inclusion’ is a major goal of the current government, as laid out in the 2017 report, Digital New Zealanders: The pulse of our nation, published by the Digital Inclusion Research Group.

Solving digital poverty requires identifying the groups most affected, the issues they face, and the areas of life impacted by a lack of digital inclusion. The social work undertaken by Kim Sheehan at SVDP in Newtown is intertwined with issues of digital poverty, particularly the financial barriers to accessing devices. For clients on Work and Income (WINZ) benefits, for example, buying phones and a home internet connection are not the highest priorities. For homeless clients, finding a place to charge phones and access public Wi-Fi connections is even harder.

A major group affected by digital poverty is rangatahi/youth, where the bring your own device (BYOD) policies in schools disadvantage them from the start. Ray Tuffin, dealing with clients at Paul Eagle’s office in Newtown, made two salient points on this. First, where students are unable to afford their own devices, they may be allowed to complete work on school-owned tablets but are unable to take them home, and hence they fall behind with homework. Second, the apps required by schools add hidden costs on top of purchasing devices, illustrating the number of ways that financial hardships can hinder students’ learning.

Another major issue, affecting all users, is trust. When rangatahi can’t afford devices, they often use free Wi-Fi at libraries and other public spaces, where their digital connectivity is often unsupervised and unsecure. For older clients, especially those with Kim at SVDP and the City Mission social workers down the road in Newtown, distrust in the Internet, especially with the input of personal details, leads to fewer users and higher levels of isolation.

Only two of the 34 elderly clients at the City Mission, for example, use mobile phones, an issue caused by both a lack of trust and a lack of skills.

After access and trust, the skills gap is the third major barrier to digital inclusion and is often tied in with a fourth: motivation. Both Kim and Ray’s work with refugee clients has highlighted this, as the lack of English-language skills prevents the successful navigation of sites such as MyMSD and databases for job seekers. This leads to a lack of motivation to use these sites and therefore fewer benefits gained from having Internet access in the first place.

The motivation barrier is also a factor in the digital connectivity experiences of many clients with disabilities. Both navigating MyMSD and physically using the devices provided by WINZ can be a challenge, and without better support these clients may stop trying, thus removing the benefits of Internet provision. The 2018 report Out of the Maze: Building digitally inclusive communities, published by The Workshop, discusses this and other issues in further detail.

The consequences of digital poverty range from poorer educational results and fewer real-world job and economic opportunities, to social isolation and the loss of benefits resulting from online services, including monetary aid and food parcels. While Immigration New Zealand and WINZ reduce their face-to-face appointments, clients are not sufficiently connected to engage with the digital communication channels. As Maria Millin and the team at City Mission noted, face-to-face time must retain its value, especially when working with Māori and Pasifika clients for whom the oral tradition is vital.

The somewhat detached nature of digital connectivity affects family dynamics and mental health, and helps to draw a conclusion around digital poverty: that even when physical and financial barriers to access are removed, digital inclusion can still be withheld by a lack of online skills, a lack of motivation to use the most beneficial sites, and an absence of trust and/or security when using the Internet. Many New Zealanders, especially the clients of social workers such as Kim, continue to face digital poverty in all areas of life.