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This report builds on the prior reports for the project commissioned by the Welsh Government to develop a Minimum Digital Living Standard for Wales (W-MDLS). The definition for an MDLS derived from our work with households is:
A minimum digital standard of living includes, but is more than having accessible internet, adequate equipment, and the skills, knowledge and support people need. It is about being able to communicate, connect and engage with opportunities safely and with confidence.
This definition was derived as part of a deliberative national UK project to develop a Minimum Digital Living Standard. From this verbal definition UK households developed, through further deliberative work, a basket of goods, services, and skills needed by households with children to meet this definition. For a full definition of the MDLS detailing equipment, services and skills please see Appendix 1.
Concurrently with this UK project the Welsh government supported further deliberative research with Welsh households and engagement with stakeholders to assess the relevance of the MDLS in Wales. The results from Phase 1 of this work established the relevance of the MDLS for Welsh households can be found in the report: Towards a Welsh minimum digital living standard.
This current report on Phase 2 of the research investigates the key barriers that communities across Wales face when accessing digital provision and to meeting the W-MDLS. These are barriers identified by both households and third sector organisations working on the ground with communities.
MDLS research sets out a framework of what families with children need in order to participate and feel fully included in the digital world around them. The research with households reported here builds on the MDLS framework drawing on a set of qualitative family interviews in Wales. The research looks in depth at their digital needs, the issues they face in meeting their needs, and what this means for their everyday lives. It is intended that presenting the perspectives and experiences of families themselves, who are in a range of situations, provides useful insight and context. Alongside the views of stakeholders (see ‘Stakeholder organisation views’) these insights can inform bodies and organisations who may draw on MDLS definition. For details on the research approach for these interviews please see Appendix 2.
In line with MDLS, the interviews focused on participants’ access to digital devices, internet connection, and the skills and knowledge needed in today’s digital world, to explore families’ needs in different circumstances and the implications of not reaching the level of provision outlined in MDLS. The interviews highlight the challenges that families face in meeting digital needs, alongside, and often intersecting with, circumstances that bring additional needs or considerations.
How well are digital needs being met and the impact of unmet needs for families with children
MDLS defines digital inclusion as holistic and multifaceted in that families need a combination of devices and internet connection, as well as the relevant skills and knowledge to enable them to use technology and go online safely and confidently. Family interviews therefore covered all these aspects of MDLS exploring the extent to which families were able to meet their digital needs across these areas, and the impacts of being unable to do so.
Families discussed the importance of devices and services (smart phones, laptops or tablets, gaming devices and subscriptions) as well as connection via home broadband and mobile data for use out and about. In line with the MDLS research, it was clear that merely having devices and access to connection was not enough; they needed to be adequate in quality or specification and fit for purpose. This meant having a sufficient type of device, condition, and quantity suitable for the size of the household and the age of the children, alongside reliable internet connection with sufficient capacity to enable all family members to carry out their daily tasks and activities. MDLS indicates that a basic smart phone; mobile phone with reasonable screen and internet access, such as a basic android phone is a minimum requirement for adults and secondary school age children in the household.
Smart phone and data
Families talked about the crucial role of the smart phone, involving much of their day-to-day organisation and communication. Parents and secondary-school-age children included in the study had smart phones that were entry-level android smart phones or of a higher grade. However, families revealed a complex picture around their experiences with smart phones and data allowance, indicating that they did not necessarily meet their digital needs. Families reported that the following impacted their feelings of digital inclusion and their ability to carry out their everyday tasks and activities: the functionality and capabilities of their smart phones, the means by which they acquired their phones and data allowance and costs.
The capability of devices
The condition and capability of a device made an important difference to people’s experience of using their mobile as well as in their day-to-day life. Phone condition and functionality was influenced by the specifications of the phone (for example, how much storage space or memory it had) as well as by its age and the extent to which it was used. One parent said that she needed to use two smart phones because each device was insufficient. One smart phone did not have enough storage and the other had an insufficient battery life. Storage and battery life was an issue for another parent whose children frequently used her phone throughout the day because other devices, such as tablets, were not working.
For these parents, who could not afford to replace a handset, they reported continually deleting apps that they needed to manage storage space, always thinking about the battery life of the phone, and worrying about the impact of running out of battery while out and about. Having a useable phone was vital to these families. For 1 family, 1 of the children was on the autism spectrum and needed to use his parent’s phone as a distraction to manage anxiety when outside of the home or in social situations, using the phone provided him with a safe space, albeit digital, and a form of distraction. For another family, their unsatisfactory living situation meant that they often spent time out of the house and depended heavily on their phone, they needed to know it was always useable, including to access supermarket apps and vouchers stored on their phone which were crucial to saving money on a very low income.
Acquiring and replacing a phone
Purchasing a mobile on a contract (including a data package) and being able to spread the cost enabled people to acquire a handset that they felt would be difficult to afford as a one-off purchase on a low income. Participants were generally committed to payments and the associated data plan over 2 years, with some feeling worried about how they could cover the cost of a new phone if theirs broke before an upgrade was due. Where this had happened, a parent reported that their relative had given them an old handset. Another parent said that they were paying an extra premium for insurance to cover them in case this happened (adding to their monthly cost). Otherwise, it was a case of managing, or hoping it could be repaired in the meantime. One young person still had several months left on his contract, but a broken phone screen now inhibited him doing some tasks, they had used their phone a lot (including for schoolwork as he did not have a laptop) and noted that with the battery life diminishing, it was unlikely to last more than the 2 years. Parents often passed handsets onto their children when they upgraded their device which was seen as a helpful way of providing them with a mobile, although this meant that it could already be several years old by the time the child came into possession of it.
Mobile data costs
Households smart phone costs varied widely depending on the amount of monthly data the package included, and whether or not it covered the cost of the smart phone. It also related to how data was used by and between family members, and the availability of reliable broadband or mobile provision in their area (discussed further under Broadband Connectivity Issues). Accessing sufficient data was a key concern for families, and they described strategies as well as challenges they faced in trying to access data that was both suitable and affordable.
Some households limited their monthly data due to the cost. The interviews revealed that this could involve data being both shared and restricted among family members, something which posed challenges for the balancing of individual and family needs within a tight budget. In one case, a parent and child had unlimited data, which they said was not only important for allaying anxieties about running out, but for sharing among other siblings and ‘hotspotting’ to other devices to save them using their pay-as-you-go data. Some parents shared their data with younger children to use on their tablets. In other cases, families had to restrict their or their children’s data to keep overall data costs down. Two secondary-school-age children who did not have data (or calls or texts) with their phones said that they managed this by depending on friends to share their data when they were out or by using free Wi-Fi. However, this was not always straightforward and depended on how willing, and perhaps able, friends were to share.
Child 1: If I have to message mum or something and I’m somewhere where there’s no free Wi-Fi, I end up connecting to [friend’s] internet.
Child 2: It’s annoying. Because most of the time I go places that there’s barely any internet anywhere, or if there is internet, you have to sign into a password … That’s what you’ve got to do anyways.
Parent: He means the private connections, it’s like people you know, close to houses and whatever and it picks up on their Wi-Fi. As they said, they connect to their friends’ hotspots and whatever as well
Child 2: I don’t, none of my friends let me.…
Parent: His friends are a completely different kettle of fish to hers.
Child 1: My friends don’t mind.
(Family: parent and children aged 14 and 12)
They also mentioned that not having access to data on their phone meant that they could miss messages when they were out and get ‘backlash’ from mates who think that they are being ignored. In another case, a parent discussed how she had prioritised her son’s data and had reduced her own to 1GB per month. The parent talked about how this restricted her mobile use when out and about, which did cause some difficulties and involve ‘a lot of pre-planning’, but said that she needed to cut costs and felt that it was less problematic for her to manage on a lower level of data than for her son:
I choose to do it that way to try and save a bit of money. … something has got to give somewhere. We can't just all have it. It’s a necessity for them so they've got a life basically with all their friends in this digital age. (Parent)
Now, everyone’s just got data. I think it’s a necessity at this point because we don’t text each other, no one has each other’s numbers really. It’s Snapchat because you can call on Snapchat, text on Snapchat, stories on Snapchat, so that’s what everyone uses now. (Child aged 17)
Families described connecting household devices to their mobile data to compensate for poor or no home broadband connection. Where this involved, for example, video calling or streaming this could quickly diminish the mobile data allowance available. Some participants with higher or unlimited levels of data could more easily manage this higher usage, however, using mobile data to compensate for home broadband came with high monthly data costs which were not necessarily manageable. One participant, for example, explained that they wanted to reduce their data package down from 15GB per month to save money, but they were worried that this would put them at risk of running out of data or incurring additional data charges when their home broadband was not working. Another barrier to reducing mobile costs was limited mobile coverage in their area which restricted the providers available and ability to switch to a better deal (discussed further under Social tariffs are needed but inadequate).
A laptop or tablet
A laptop or tablet is included in MDLS to supplement a phone, as it is seen as serving a different purpose, in particular for school-age children where it can be used to complete and submit homework. This was an area where there was wide variation in provision in relation to MDLS (where the number of devices required increases with the number of children). Initially, many of the families appeared to have a number of laptops and/or tablets which would theoretically set them above what was outlined in MDLS. However, when these devices were explored further, participants explained that these were not necessarily working properly, they were old, losing functionality, or did not have the software they needed.
There’s 2 [laptops] that’s working…Out of those t2, we only typically use the 1 of them, the other 1 is a lot older and it’s really slow. So, it’s like, you know, obviously, I think in today’s world, you need it to be fast and efficient, don’t you? You know to run all the software that you need and stuff. So yeah, it’s only the 1 of them that ticks all the boxes and does everything, but the other 1 is not so good. (Parent)
In other cases, parents had devices that could not necessarily be shared for general family use, because they had borrowed them from a relative, or because they were a work or voluntary role related device, and they could not risk them becoming damaged. Families said that lack of access to a laptop limited them in certain tasks. In one case a young person could not complete an application form at home, but often this related to schoolwork. Parents sometimes felt that there was or had been an assumption that the family would have access to a laptop at home. In fact, having an insufficient laptop or none at all caused difficulty where a child could not submit homework, or had to rely on a phone to participate in online learning including for home schooling. Where families felt that they lacked or needed a reliable and up to date laptop it often related to needing it for school or college work.
A few participants described the difference having a suitable device had made to them. In one interview, a parent said that her older children had bought her a laptop, and in other interviews, participants had recently been provided with a laptop or tablet from a support organisation. Access to these devices helped parents to participate in online courses and made a huge difference in compared to previously using their phone. Being given a laptop also enabled people to engage in voluntary roles.
When they gave me that [laptop], I felt really happy because then that could help me and then I could help others, so it’s nice. (Parent 1)
They also provided children with the opportunity to perform online tasks at home instead of relying on school computers, their smart phone or the local library. Several families had tablets specifically designed for children, which were robust and equipped with appropriate security features. These suited the needs, particularly of younger children, though parents noted they would need to be replaced as the child developed.
Subscription services and gaming consoles
Access to a gaming console and an online gaming subscription are included in MDLS so that children have the opportunity to join their friends online and not miss out on gaming as a form of social activity. The importance of gaming varied across the families we interviewed; some families for example used their console to watch TV or films rather than for gaming. However, for some children and young people, gaming was a part of life and a means of interacting with friends. One parent who lived in a rural area observed that there was little else for children to do out and about. Gaming was also particularly important where children or young people had autism, ADHD or anxiety, and was described as helpful for their wellbeing. Across a range of circumstances, parents and young people discussed how some aspects of face-to-face interaction could be difficult, and that online gaming provided a social life and a way of connecting with others that felt comfortable or less judgemental.
…the outside world is just somewhere I don’t want to be. So online, you know, I can be myself without anyone knowing me. (Child aged 18)
Families talked about the ongoing financial implications of gaming online as it requires a subscription to interact with other people, as well as a decent and reliable internet connection to avoid being cut out or ‘lagging’ when playing. A parent highlighted another financial implication relating to the pressure to update a console in order to continue playing with friends or relatives who had a newer version, or when new games were released that could not run on older devices.
A regular cost incurred by some families was for television subscriptions such as Netflix, Disney or a TV box. While this added to families’ budgets, people explained that it could be their main means of entertainment, for example if they did not go out much because of the cost, had limited amenities in their area, or due to disabilities or mental health. Parents and young people described how streaming television content contributed to their wellbeing, explaining that it could help them to relax, having a ‘movie night’ together was important family time ‘it brings us together’, and also helped people to feel included:
It Is important for us, for something like Netflix, because even colleagues in work, oh, have you seen this have you seen that? It makes us feel like we’re connecting. (Parent)
Broadband and connectivity issues
Home broadband is a cornerstone to MDLS but with the proviso that it should be accessible and have the reliability and speed to sufficiently meet a family’s needs. This can include activities such as gaming, streaming, and video calls requiring a reasonable and stable connection to work properly. The interviews highlighted the challenges that the families faced in obtaining sufficient broadband connection, and the impact.
One family that was living in temporary accommodation did not have access to home broadband because they could not afford to cover the cost of the monthly bill with their asylum support payment. Although, the parent of this family had received a mobile SIM card providing 20GB of monthly data from a support organisation, she said that this had to cover all her internet usage in and out of the home. As the family also did not have a television, their data usage also included entertainment, such as mobile games and television programmes.
Unreliable broadband meant that families had difficulty running multiple devices simultaneously and meant that they had to restrict their usage or disconnect devices. Families also reported that they could not access the internet in certain parts of the home. For 1 family, this meant that their child could not do their homework in their bedroom where it was quiet but had to instead do it in the family living room. Slow internet speeds and frequent disconnection impacted video calls which were important for connecting with friends and family, as well as for meetings for voluntary work or for online learning. Unreliable connection was repeatedly raised as an issue for children, especially if the child was on the autism spectrum or had ADHD, for whom being cut off from the ‘safe space’ of watching their programmes or gaming online could cause frustration and anxiety. Being without broadband could mean having to seek out other ways to get a connection, for example by using the internet at a library after school, to take a child to a relative so they could use the television or travelling to an in-person rather than online appointment.
The cost of home broadband is a significant issue for families on a tight budget, and parents often felt that they were paying a high price (up to £50 a month) for their internet. Some had had to upgrade to ‘fast fibre’ to get sufficient Wi-Fi at home, as their previous service had been unable to cope. However, they felt they had little choice as it was such an important need for their family.
I’m not happy about what I’m paying now that I’ve upgraded to the superhero broadband…The thing is, for our particular household, it needs to be fast, reliable broadband, and unfortunately, it’s literally a case of you have to pay practically double for it. (Parent)
Participants were particularly frustrated if they had upgraded and been promised a better service but were still experiencing a slow or unreliable connection. One parent who could not afford to upgrade to a faster internet felt that they had no choice but to put up with insufficient service but said that the cost was still comprised a significant part of their budget.
It is something that you have no choice, we have to have it at this price, but you get low signal, you get the connection dropping, and when you complain about it, they’re like, oh we’ll check it and do it and that’s the end of [it]. They will do the bare minimum at the price that we’re paying, and yet I pay about £25, that’s not a little amount. For me, that’s quite a [large] amount. (Parent)
Families living in more rural and valleys areas of Wales, noted that difficulties getting a reasonable connection were compounded by the limited choice of providers which restricted the broadband options available to them.
A further issue related to the practices of service providers, especially the loyalty premium, where monthly costs for broadband had risen from £26 (for new customers) to £39 or over £50. This had caught out a couple of families, who, at the time of interview, were paying substantially more than they had expected to or could afford to and were concerned that they were stuck in a contract. In 1 case, this had led to arrears and the family was cut off from the internet until they were able to borrow the money to reinstall it.
Social tariffs are needed but inadequate
Participants strongly felt that lower cost broadband options should be available to help ease the cost for low-income households, but that the provision offered through social tariffs was insufficient for people’s needs. One parent had used a social tariff in the past, but found it inadequate and had since moved to a fast fibre broadband and felt that social tariffs were not able to cope with the challenges families in that area face at the speed offered:
I’ve tried a couple of broadbands, especially ones for people on Benefit. So cheaper broadband…Fantastic financially, but useless for internet, because it’s like the lowest speed. And round here, because we’re quite rural, the speeds are not as fast as they should be, so the connection drops all the time. (Parent)
Others made the point that needs and expectations around what is required as a ‘basic service’ have evolved with increased digitalisation, and that social tariffs should reflect this:
Actually, that social tariff isn’t going to be [sufficient] for my children’s needs….And they’ll tell you it’s a basic service, but what you expect now, your basic service, is very different from what you expected ten years ago. Your basic service needs to be on needs, all the school, education, Jobcentre, you can’t do anything without going online. (Parent)
Without an improvement in the quality of provision offered through social tariffs, it was not seen as a feasible for many families. As the families expressed, when faced with the option of a service that won’t adequately meet a families’ needs, people have little ‘choice’ but to pay higher rates. Social tariffs were also critiqued by stakeholders see section.
Skills and understanding for navigating the digital world
Having the skills and understanding to be able to use technology and go online confidently and safely is another important aspect of MDLS. This covers both practical (‘functional’ digital skills) as well as critical skills for living in a digital society such as an awareness of online safety. In policy terms basic digital skills are often discussed in terms of the core elements of the UK governments ‘Essential Digital Skills Framework’. Both the MDLS skills and the levels of the Essential Digital Skills Framework can be seen to fall under the broad umbrella of ‘digital literacy’. For additional information on this please see recent reports by University of Liverpool, Ofcom, and DCMS/DSIT.
Parents discussed their families’ experiences and what they felt was important when operating devices, dealing with digital risks, or managing the pressures of online life. It was also noted that when considering the needs of families, the skills of grandparents are also relevant as they are likely to be involved in childcare.
The need for wide ranging practical skills
As might be expected, skills and needs varied across and within families. For example, one parent was a very confident IT user, having managed their own business in the past before coming to Wales, and the challenges she faced were not related to skills, but to lacking equipment, connection, and finances. In other families, some family members relied on other family members for digital support, because they did not possess the skills or confidence to fill out online forms or send payments via a banking app.
As we’ve outlined, family life entailed dealing with a wide range of devices and it was clear from the interviews that while people may be confident in one area, it does not necessarily mean that they are equally confident in another area. Several parents discussed how they were able to navigate their way around a laptop, sometimes using 1 for work or a voluntary role, but were less confident when using their phone or when encountering connection issues. Some parents felt they could get by on the day-to-day basics of operating devices but found it difficult when something went wrong.
I think my kids expect me to know everything, so if there’s something wrong over the internet, I’m going back and forth with the connection, trying to connect it to the TV and they’re like, oh why is it not working, constantly nagging me, and I have no idea, but I’m cluelessly tugging on wires, pressing buttons and stuff, hoping. (Parent)
Where there were older children in the family, they were often the ‘go to’ for technical support. But again, their skill sets could be mixed, 1 one teenager who was a very confident mobile user, and helped their parent navigate switching from Android to iPhone, turned to her parent for support using a laptop. Other parents discussed asking family or friends for help or searching online to solve an issue. Learning basic IT skills in the past had provided a grounding in using a laptop, and 1 participant was going to have IT training through their voluntary work role. However, it was not necessarily obvious to people how to deal with some of the obstacles they faced.
So, it’s down to you as a parent then isn’t it, to update the thing and I haven’t got no clue. I should educate myself on it. But where would I go, I don’t know. (Parent)
You’ve got to be on their [school] mailing list for their e-mails. Like, certain things that have been going on, like book sales, cake sales, that sort of thing. He's missed out on a lot because, obviously, I don’t use those sort of things very well. And I explained this to [the school], and they were like, oh well, we’ll tell you in the future, we’ll let you know [but they don’t]. (Parent)
It is also important to note that while someone may be confident using WhatsApp or Facetime for video calls, they may not be comfortable using Zoom or Teams in more formal circumstances. One parent explained that not knowing how to use these platforms for meetings compounded the discomfort they already felt when interacting with professionals.
Navigating digital safety, online risks and scams
Online safety, particularly in relation to children’s behaviour and welfare was a key concern for parents. Children we spoke to were generally aware of potential online risks, for example, regarding the sharing of information and of talking to strangers. Several parents talked about how cautious they were, saying that they had instilled their concerns into their children, and they highlighted the importance of having open discussions with each other. Some parents had used safety features, for example setting age limits and using age-related tablets. The fears and heightened risk awareness for some parents had stemmed from past experiences, where a child had been involved in an online risk, because of content they had posted online, or because they had inadvertently talked to adults. These experiences had shaken the parents and children involved. Some parents noted that a benefit of family members using the same type of mobile, either Android or iPhone, was that it enabled easier linking, locating and monitoring. However, this was not always possible for families, especially where they needed to rely on a phone supplied to them (by wider family members or support organisations). In place of linked devices and parental controls, one parent described physically checking and monitoring the online activity of her 10 year old, a situation which did not necessarily provide convenience or peace of mind.
It’s quite annoying for me now, because this is iPhone and it’s not android, I cannot do the parental control, at least that I know of, I will have to do a bit more of research…. I tell her do not give your personal information to people you don’t know. But you know kids …I try to take a look into the phone or give me the phone when she goes to the shower or something (Parent)
Parents recognised that it was a hard balance to strike though, with a need to trust their children, knowing they will be using social media as they get older and not wanting them to miss out.
There was awareness that it was important to be able to identify online scams, and although some parents were ultra-cautious, this was not easy. Several families described being caught out, whether by fraudulent hyperlinks which had affected their internet browser, or by downloading an app which had compromised their bank details, or losing money after buying second hand devices online that had been falsely advertised and did not work. In another incident, a young child had broken a parent’s phone after copying what they had seen online, and from then the parent made sure to watch YouTube videos together to talk critically about what they saw.
Dealing with online pressures
In the MDLS definition the ability to act appropriately online and deal with problematic online behaviour are listed as both practical and safety skills. In discussions with households these issues were discussed and tied to the centrality of digital communications in everyday relationships for all household members, but especially young people. Dealing with pressures associated with online communication, and in particular social media, was therefore something that the families we spoke to related to, with both differences and similarities in the issues that children, young people, and parents raised.
Young people in particular recognised that there were often expectations for an instant response to messages but had different experiences and ways of managing this. Young people said that the pressure to respond could be hard to deal with, particularly when a child first got a phone, and was learning how to navigate expectations. Several older children described the need to be aware and not put pressure on yourself, as well as managing other people’s expectations. For example, 1 young person described how he did not feel the social pressure to respond to messages, but that his girlfriend would get fed up waiting for a response. He said that this frustration was not helped by the feature which enabled people to see if a message had been received or read. Another young participant explained how she dealt with constant messages from her friends:
I’ve just left my phone on do not disturb. So, half of the time I just won’t get notifications come through until it’s just a massive list of messages and phone calls. But it doesn’t put pressure on me anymore. I prefer it on because if I want to watch a video, I actually can instead of having notifications coming through like every second. (Child, age 14)
Another issue raised was the pressure from viewing social media and ‘influencers’ which can affect young peoples’ self-image, and impact on their wellbeing. As one young person noted, people need to understand that they use filters, and ‘not get lost in it’.
On the internet…everyone expects someone to look like a certain way as well. Especially on places like Tik Tok and that, because you post like videos of yourself, and it can be really damaging to someone’s mental health and like how they feel about themselves. (Child, age 16)
Parents discussed instances where children had been subject to online bullying and derogatory comments, but also the difficulty of children being misunderstood when sending a message which could be taken the wrong way. Several parents talked about the need to explain to children about being careful with what they write online. Some parents highlighted that being misunderstood online was prevalent for children with ADHD or on the autism spectrum.
While acknowledging that the internet was a valued means of communication and information gathering, parents and children alike discussed the challenges of managing time online. They talked about getting ‘sucked in’ to social media and said that it can ‘take over’. In recognition of this, one parent was now monitoring their time on Instagram and candy crush.
I spend way too much time on Facebook, I know … And I kind of feel like a bit of a digital zombie and just paralysed by the internet, but at the same time, it’s a distraction and it’s a way of me keeping in touch with people. (Parent)
I think TikTok’s the worst for that. Oh, two hours gone, that’s my night. The thing is what I find mad about it is I could happily scroll through TikTok literally for about 4 hours and then give it 5 minutes I couldn’t tell you a single video that I watched. It’s mental how we waste time. (Child aged 17)
Barriers to MDLS: affordability
As might be expected, affordability, in the context of constrained household income and the pressure of increased costs of living, significantly influenced the of level of technology families had.
Affordability and financial constraints
Financial pressure was a constant presence for families in the study to varying degrees. Households ranged from those whose income came solely from social security benefits or being in the asylum system with even lower levels of support, to those with parents in paid work who earned above the level to be eligible for benefits. Parents discussed how their already-constrained budgets, faced further strain from increased food and energy prices. Some described ‘barely scraping by’, having to borrow to survive, and being in debt or arrears with bills. Living on a low income meant cutting back on essentials, transport, children’s activities, and depending on support (from family, friends, or organisations) for food and clothing, and sometimes digital devices or connection.
Affordability was therefore a key barrier to meeting families’ digital needs and meant having to manage with phones that did not work properly, not having a laptop they could use, or having insufficient internet access and data. Precarious financial situations also limited peoples’ options, with families saying that they could not take out or change a mobile contract due to a poor credit rating or being in arrears with payments.
The interviews also demonstrated that even where families had a range of digital devices, or fast broadband, these were not necessarily ‘affordable’, and covering the costs impacted other areas of the household budget. Some parents discussed how, despite finances being extremely tight, meeting their families’ digital needs, in particular for children, meant that they prioritised broadband and phone payments; sometimes going without food, or walking rather than paying for public transport and getting behind with other payments as a result. The recourse to the cutting back of other essentials highlighted the importance for some families of being digitally included but the difficult decisions and hardship this could entail on a tight budget.
Realistically, I choose paying for the internet over feeding myself because the need is so massive for my children. (Parent)
Finding the money for digital devices on constrained incomes was not possible for many of the families. Some parents had borrowed money or had bought items on credit to spread the cost, including using a loan shark where they felt that that they had limited other options. What had helped one family was a work scheme which allowed a parent to purchase technology items with deductions from their salary, where they said that this made repayments more manageable. In a few cases, families had been given devices (a phone, or laptop or tablet) and in one case mobile data, from support organisations which had made a huge difference as they would not have been able to afford these otherwise.
Online banking was a regular part of daily life for many, and essential for those without easy access to a branch (either due to a health condition or where they lived), but people needed mobile data or Wi-Fi to access their accounts. Inadequate connection compounded restricted incomes where parents could not get online to make a payment, incurring late payment charges.
Variation in digital needs and the ability to meet them
Beyond affordability, other structural and individual factors also intersected to impact on the options available to them and demands placed on devices and the internet, highlighting how needs and the ability to meet them vary for families in different circumstances. MDLS can be seen as a starting point, but our interviews highlight how meeting digital needs for families with children is far from a one-size-fits all approach. Speaking to families in a range of circumstances helped to elucidate the wide variation in digital needs, which intersect with various challenges achieving digital inclusion. We have referred to some of these needs and barriers throughout the last section but pull them together here.
Families where a parent and/or child has a health condition or disability
A health condition or disability could have multiple implications for the digital needs and experiences of families in the study. Having adequate phone data and signal for emergencies was crucial where a family member had a health condition or disability that could require sudden hospital admission, and important for peace of mind where a family member needed access to support during times of anxiety. Some families said that the internet provided essential information and access to support. It enabled them to research their own or their child’s health condition, find out about different resources, and connect socially with others online who were in similar situations.
The internet is great, because it helps me connect, and I can join those sort of other things, you know like support groups…. I’m awaiting therapy at the moment, but I also try to help myself and I do a lot of research of what I think or what I feel, and the internet has given me a lot more awareness and the support out there. (Parent)
Digital access was considered important for maintaining contact with health services which increasingly use online systems, for example for making and confirming appointments and accessing prescriptions. Some families also said that the internet provided a safe space for people to socialise, including for young people and children on the autism spectrum. One parent said that video calling friends had helped her ‘get through’ when she was severely ill. For another participant with anxiety, going online allowed a means of making and keeping in touch with friends. Conversely, families raised digital challenges for people with a disability or health condition. This included the shift from paper, telephone and face-to-face interaction to online services and information sources which could be hard to navigate. For example, one parent said that as a dyslexic person, websites which were dense with text and jargon presented significant barriers for finding out about social security benefits.
Some families discussed the enhanced need for fast and reliable broadband for children with ADHD, anxiety or on the autism spectrum. Listening to music, gaming or streaming videos was important for creating a calming space which the child could control and predict. Interrupted or slow connections could have an adverse effect on the child, causing them distress. Families linked frustration and distress to device breakages and concerns about the cost of replacement of these important items.
He does lose control and a lot of the time it’s because he was mid-game and just about to score and the internet cuts. And he launches his remote. We get through a few remotes that are £59 each, and if they land on the telly. I’ve got a telly on credit in his room at the moment because he smashed it, and that was due to the internet cutting out. (Parent)
Families’ personal circumstances
The interviews highlighted additional needs, considerations and challenges relevant to digital use in varying family circumstances and living situations. Families with different configurations had greater digital needs. For example, in separated families where children lived some distance from a parent, or where they lived with a kinship carer digital access and connectivity was important for family members to maintain their relationship. Participants talked about the importance of video calls rather than phone calls, but this depended on an adequate and stable internet connection.
A phone call is not as nice as a video call, is it? And obviously, with them living so far away, it’s better for them to see my face than just hear my voice. (Parent)
The value of video calling was reiterated by families with a network of family and friends living far away, and where circumstances restricted their ability to make in-person visits to friends and family, such as caring responsibilities, health conditions, or a broader lack of time or money. Video calling enabled people to maintain a valuable social connection and relationship including in times of difficulty and for sharing important moments. Participants also talked about device compatibility where children lived apart from a parent or other siblings and wanted to use Facetime for calls (a video calling platform only available on iPhones) or to join online games with them on new and compatible consoles. Updating devices to enable such communication could involve significant cost. One participant explained that until she was able to get an iPhone for their child so that they could Facetime a parent, they used WhatsApp which she had safety concerns about and would prefer them not to access.
There were also greater demands on digital resources among larger families. In one of the families interviewed, not having enough devices to go around meant that the parent needed to frequently share her phone with her children throughout the day. This impacted on her own access to the phone, including sometimes missing phone calls, as well as having implications for the device’s durability.
Access to the internet, can be vitally important in very difficult circumstances. One participant reflected on a period of domestic abuse that she had since left, citing that finding information and support online had helped her to leave that violent situation.
The internet for me personally is a lifeline… because if it wasn’t for the internet, I wouldn’t have been able to get hold of Women’s Aid because the adverts don’t come up on the TV, I came across the adverts on Facebook,, and I wouldn’t have been able to get advice off people…[Video calls were] the only thing that kept me sane…I could control a little bit of my life. (Parent)
The experiences of one participant who was seeking asylum drew attention to the difficulties of living on a very limited income from asylum support payments, coupled with living circumstances that entailed greater need for digital access. With no internet supplied in their temporary shared accommodation, and being unable to afford home broadband, the family relied on mobile data provided by a support organisation. Compounding these issues, they were living with another family in a tense home environment, and they needed to spend time away from the home as much as possible. Managing with two inadequate phones (one with insufficient storage space and one with insufficient battery life) was stressful, particularly as the family wanted to ensure that they were contactable in relation to the asylum process and able get to appointments.
Living in an area with limited broadband or mobile coverage
Some participants in the study lived in city locations, but others were in towns or villages in the valleys or more rural or isolated location in Wales. As well as having less access to, and having to travel to, amenities such as a supermarket, bank branch or library, which brought time and cost implication, families also said that they faced issues with internet connectivity and sometimes mobile signal. Participants often berated the poor internet provision in their area, which they felt was a barrier to getting good connection at a reasonable price. Lack of providers meant less choice when shopping around for broadband and having to pay for a higher speed to improve their connection, although as noted in the previous section, paying more did not guarantee a satisfactory service. People also felt that they had less ‘bargaining power’ if they did want to change providers – with a feeling that it was hard to negotiate a better deal or threaten to leave if a provider knew that they had little choice about doing so.
You’re quite limited to who you can go with… because the connection’s too slow in the areas that we are…I don’t know if they need more towers or something, I think they’ve said it’s the mountains that actually affect the connection and you can’t move them! They forgot about us down here! (Parent)
While some people wondered if poor provision related inevitably to their local landscape, there was a feeling of being left behind. Several participants contrasted their own internet situation with experiences of visiting other places or people with faster speeds (often at a lower cost). One participant reflected on a conversation they had with a relative.
He wouldn’t put up with that in London, that’s what he said, there’s no way we could use that in London, if they were giving us that speed, they’d have hell. (Parent)
Insufficient broadband could place extra demand on mobile data, but people also experienced limited mobile signal too. Again, there was frustration at being unable shop around for a cheaper deal or use a discounted provider. People explained that limited mobile coverage in their area restricted their options, in cases they said just one or two companies could provide a signal where they lived - so they were unable to cut costs or find a better service. Inadequate signal and connectivity raised practical issues and also concerns, for example about being able to seek help if their car broke down in an isolated area or in a medical emergency.
‘The fear of not having signal it’s a real life worry for me’. ‘Like realistically, I don’t go anywhere, I don’t do anything. The council put on free days down there [park], but I can’t attend them because the fear of not being able to phone that ambulance’. (Parent)
Welsh language and digital technology
A Welsh speaking family said that although they felt progress was being made with Welsh language online content, there were issues around digital use as the technology that family members needed for everyday activities could only be partially used in Welsh, if at all. For example, a parent discussed being able to select a Welsh language keypad for her iPhone but said that the spell check did not identify mistakes in Welsh. She also said that the tablets her children used at home did not have Welsh as a language option and noted that while children signed into school technology in Welsh, a lot of digital content continued to be in English, such as school communication or learning apps.
Some of these kids come from completely Welsh household[s] and never kind of seen it [English]. But then, since the iPads and stuff come out, they’ve had to learn the English, you know, because it’s there, but then they can’t go back to the Welsh on the iPad because it’s not there. (Parent)
A parent also observed that although learning resources were slowly made available in Welsh, they could also more expensive. The participant acknowledged that there may be issues accommodating regional dialects but emphasised that more progress was needed in providing resources in Welsh to protect the language and support people who wanted to use it.
It is coming slowly but then as I say, if you’re born and bred in Wales, a household only speaks Welsh and you want to know something to do with colic or something like that with your baby and you don’t necessarily want to use the English, you can’t, because there’s not the Welsh out there. (Parent)
Conclusions and key messages
Looking in depth from the perspectives of families themselves highlights the value of taking a holistic approach to digital inclusion which is fundamental to MDLS. Participants repeatedly stressed the importance of having adequate devices and connection, and viewed digital access as an important need, indeed a ‘lifeline’, families in this day and age. The implications related to whether or not families’ digital needs were met, reiterate the relevance MDLS and it’s aim to enable people to ‘communicate, connect and engage with opportunities. We conclude with some key considerations relating to the need for, and challenges around reaching MDLS for families with children that have emerged from this study.
Having Inadequate devices or connection was inconvenient and time consuming for families, for example having to be constantly mindful of and planning for device usage and charging or finding different ways to access the internet. It was also a source of worry and stress where online access was crucial to a family member. Lack of digital access affected interaction with services such as education (the ability to do schoolwork and submit homework online), personal finances (Inadequate connection compounded restricted incomes where parents could not get online to make a payment, incurring late payment charges), and the opportunity or experience of online meetings with formal services or agencies.
Digital inclusion linked to social inclusion, for parents and children to connect, communicate and maintain relationships with family and friends. This could be inhibited by insufficient broadband at home or lack of mobile data when out which risked missing or being able to respond to messages. Digital access played an important role in the ability to take up opportunities, for example online courses, which could contribute to wellbeing, as well as potential future opportunities.
[Online learning is] massive, especially with mental health because some days or some weeks you get really great weeks and you can do really, really well, and other times it’s a struggle to get up in the morning. So that gives you an opportunity to better yourself a little bit but at your own pace, it’s helping me grow as a person. (Parent)
Being given a laptop made a huge difference to online participation for families who could not afford to buy one, highlighting the need for support to help families access the level of provision in MDLS. Summing up the difference that MDLS could make, one parent said that if they were to have a family laptop and reliable broadband connection (which they currently lacked) it could be ‘lifechanging’, not only to help keep in touch with family, and for their child’s homework, but because she would love to one day do a degree online.
There are some key points to consider when thinking about taking forward MDLS and the needs of families, in particular those on low incomes, facing financial constraints but also related to other issues we have covered here such as health and disability, different family situations and the area they live in:
- It cannot be assumed, on the basis of number of devices alone, that a family’s digital needs are being met. While a family may possess several devices, they may be broken, not fit for purpose, or not available for family use. There may be an internet connection, but it has to be reliable for the family to do the online activities they need to.
- Families’ particular circumstances can bring additional needs and demands on digital technology over and above MDLS. Thus, MDLS could be seen as a starting point.
- Although families may appear to have what they need in terms of digital provision, affording these goods and services may be problematic. Families with low and constrained incomes may forego other essentials or accrue debt to provide for digital needs. Meeting MDLS should not be to the detriment of meeting other areas of need.
- ‘Digital poverty’ is closely linked to affordability and low income. From this research it is clear that if families’ finances were not under strain, they would have more chance of meeting their digital needs, for example being able to buy a laptop, replace a phone, or afford a higher spec broadband or more phone data. Measures to address digital poverty and the implementation of MDLS need to go alongside broader conversations about social security rates, wage levels, living standards, and poverty more generally.
- There is a need for more affordable broadband that is not currently being met by social tariffs. Affordable broadband needs to be of sufficient speed to cope with the everyday demands on the internet (such as streaming, video calling, and gaming) that are now social norms for a family. This should include additional consideration for people living in areas with limited provision, who are currently excluded from a real ‘choice’ to take up reduced social tariffs and are forced to pay a higher premium for faster speeds, or risk being left behind.
- Being unable to fully get online and engage in digital life is more than just an inconvenience – it can affect peoples’ social participation, wellbeing, and future opportunities. One parent articulated the need to think of digital connectivity as a human right:
If you want people to survive in this world, you need food, you need water, and that’s your human rights. Now having connectivity that is usable, affordable, should be on there somewhere, because actually you can’t survive in this world, the day and age that we’re living in without them. And alright, physically, you can survive without it, but actually mentally, how can you? ….I think it really needs the impact of not having connectivity should be classed as a human right. (Parent)
Stakeholder organisation views
The stakeholder participants we spoke to are based in Wales and were selected as representatives of key organisations that are members of Digital Inclusion Alliance Wales (DIAW) who work with communities likely to be below the W-MDLS. DIAW brings together organisations from across Wales that are working collectively to make Wales a digitally inclusive nation. With over 90 members, the Alliance comprises public and third sector organisations, private sector companies and academia, all focused on ensuring that everyone in Wales who wants to, is able to access and use digital tools and technologies in their everyday lives and has the confidence to do so.
Our findings here reflect 3 sets of data we have collected over the last year. This includes the stakeholder work we have done across Wales in Phase 1 of this project (see: Towards a minimum digital living standard final report and A Minimum Digital Living Standard for Households with Children: Report and Appendix 3 for a list of these organisations). We have also drawn on expert interviews with as well as additional interview work with both digital inclusion and digital literacy supporting organisations in England, Scotland, and Wales (see: Appendix 3). For this final report we also conducted in depth interviews with 4 organisations working with marginalised communities in Wales. In all cases interviews were semi-structured and were designed to explore the barriers that citizens they work with face to get online and develop digital skills; they also investigate what would be needed to effectively support people to meet the Minimum Digital Living Standard.
This section of the report concludes that stakeholders believe, to successfully support citizens, overcome the identified barriers and implement a MDLS, there needs to be 2 things:
- Effective communication and coordination between the many public and voluntary sector organisations.
They note that that many organisations offer digital inclusion and digital literacy programmes in Wales, but that greater overall coordination is needed. At some organisations commented that current duplication of services translates into low uptake numbers for the activities per organisation and lack of variety of the services offered. Moreover, a collective targets and process of coordinate should be developed that all parties are aware of and working towards.
Barriers to getting online and developing digital skills
The prior work in Phase 1 and current interviews identified several barriers that citizens face in terms of getting online and developing their digital skills. As noted in Phase 1 organisations argued that COVID-19 has been a focal point and catalyst for both identifying and addressing digital inclusion issues. The direction of travel to ‘digital first’ has been ongoing for over a decade, where the use of the internet and digital devices has become expected for citizens to access and receive support from organisations and public services. However, COVID-19 was viewed as a key turning point where organisations suddenly had to consider new ways of both working and how they support those they work with.
Stakeholder organisations recognised several barriers that prevent more vulnerable citizens from engaging online:
- The lack of suitable infrastructure provision. This includes access to adequate connectivity and internet speeds.
- Devices that are not fit for purpose hinders individuals’ opportunities to have a positive experience and improve their digital skills.
- Stakeholders provided first-hand accounts of experiences in which both the families they are supporting and the third sector organisations’ themselves lack adequate financial support to address issues of digital inclusion. They argued that this could prove unfavourable for achieving a Minimum Digital Living Standard in Wales.
- Digital skills and education are considered as important a factor as device as they improve citizens digital capabilities.
Infrastructure: connectivity and internet speed
During interviews, organisations remarked that the people they work with require the internet for a range of everyday tasks including learning, paying bills, shopping, entertainment, locating information and communicating with friends and family through social media (e.g., Facebook, Instagram, TikTok). Participants commented that unfortunately for some households, a lack of digital infrastructure remains a key barrier that prevents them from carrying out basic everyday tasks. There is a need for consistent and reliable internet as can be seen in the quote below:
So, unlike living in the middle of Cardiff, where you can just run another fully fibre cable down the depth that's already in the road, and with us, I mean from where I live to my local exchange is about 5 miles (P2).
Even with the infrastructure in place, slow connectivity or limited data packages are problematic, meaning that individuals are less likely to engage digitally due to negative experiences. Some organisations commented that connectivity needs to be sufficient for what people need to do, highlighting the importance of all family members being able to be online at the same time:
Speed sufficient to allow all members of the household to do whatever they wanna do at a time? if there's a family of 4, can all 4 of the family go online at the same time and do whatever. I'm on the call now, could my wife be working at home on the call? Could my daughter be on YouTube? Couldn't you know my other daughter be on phone without it buffering or doing what they need to do? (P1).
We would note that the MDLS has defined adequate internet as:
With sufficient reliability and speed to support all family members to access the internet at the same time.
To tackle this lack of suitable infrastructure, organisations noted that excluded citizens turn to libraries, community centres and village halls as some of the main points of access. Especially for community members living in rural areas, as they not only offer fast connectivity and loan schemes for devices (shown in the quote below) but are also central hubs for digital and other skills trainings courses. P4 have established their own community hub as a digital data bank.
The County Council's library service is giving us access to loans of iPads to support service users, and that includes access to connectivity (P2).
One interesting finding from the interviews was the breadth of needs among and within the different communities that organisations work with. For example, specific populations, such as the homeless, face more critical barriers for being online as they struggle to access connectivity when away from shelter. Furthermore, one organisation is part of a Health Board across Wales and supports people with long term conditions, such as the effects of chronic fatigue, persistent pain and the effects of long COVID. In this instance, adequate connectivity provision in the local library means that it can be used as a safe venue for citizens who lack connectivity at home, to access healthcare consultations:
We also use the link with the library service to get access to safe venues people to use for healthcare [online] consultations (P2).
Access to online health services for vulnerable community members across Wales, i.e., people with restricted mobility, people living in isolated rural areas or the elderly, constitute a tangible option for overcoming barriers to access NHS services. P3 commented that, since COVID-19, they are now able to reach beneficiaries that they couldn’t previously reach, for example people with mobility issues who couldn't attend a lot of the activities they provide. They offer a blended program delivery using multiple methods to deliver learning by combining face-to-face interactions with online activities.
We work with them across a number of services in the Health Board to make sure that everybody has a fair chance to access virtual consultations (P2).
Access to devices that are ‘fit for purpose’
To be online, it is necessary for citizens to have access to devices that are ‘fit for purpose’. That is to say they are in satisfactory condition to be used for the function for which they are intended. The use of obsolete technology and inadequate decvies adds extra barriers for those who are starting their digital engagement journeys and have also a negative impact for families which rely on these devices for everyday online interaction.
According to organisations interviewed, a significant number of digitally excluded people don't always buy their first device but instead are given an existing device by a family member, housing association, or local library. However, in the case of devices that are handed down, these are not always in a suitable condition to allow them to perform basic tasks (see the quotes below from P1). This effectively adds an extra obstacle for accessing the necessary services to function well in digital society. Using old or damaged devices has the negative effect of making inexperienced users believe that it is their fault and not that the device is old or faulty and this may hinder their progress.
Your grandson gifting you your device or someone gifting you a device, there's a reason why they've gifted the device, and I usually is because it's broken or it's slow or is a cracked screen or there's loads of other things. In lockdown we run loads of online events, you'll go virtual cooking and all these other things, and we found loads of times that cameras would be shockingly bad, the microphone would be bad (P1).
…look, I got a huge crack in my screen, and I can only see the very bottom left of what you're showing me… Now, what happens when they use devices like that? again, it goes back to the I'm frustrated, I'm angry, things take a long time. I told you I didn't need it. So, we need the right equipment in the hands of the right people, even more so when you're excluded because when you click that button and it doesn’t work or it takes ages to load, people's assumption is I've done it wrong (P1).
To provide citizens with access to devices, organisations must often collaborate and signpost citizens to external parties who can offer them equipment. This requires organisations to communicate with one another regularly and consistently. For example, 1 organisation we spoke to have partnered with a local library who loan iPads. One piece of feedback that we received was that they promoted it and was successful, however then everybody did the same and each scheme got less and less people. This happened because there was no communication, there has to be collaboration.
Signposting users to other organisations is particularly important for those who struggle with specific health conditions, for instance an organisation offers adaptive keyboards, screen readers, larger screen devices and spend time with users setting these digital devices up and explaining them how to use them:
So, for example, we've used them (devices) particularly with people engaging with the integrated autism service and with some of the more severe psychology services so that people can get support in their own home rather than being put into more stressful situations where, for example, they'd have to travel into a Community Hospital or into a busy location where they might not feel perhaps particularly comfortable or confident engaging (P2).
Affordability and funding
Organisations interviewed for both Phase 1 and Phase 2 of the project repeatedly referred to costs for both citizens and the organisations who support them. Both the affordability of internet packages and devices (by citizens or as provided by support organisations) as well as funding for local public and voluntary sector organisations. These were the 2 main barriers that were seen to have a direct impact upon the digital capabilities of the citizens they work with.
The costs involved in paying for internet contracts and devices constitute a big barrier for those on a lower income. In this regard, many mentioned that it is fundamental that citizens have access to the internet at a reasonable price. However, at present, for low-income households, affordable internet contracts are lacking, as illustrated in the quote below. This is particularly important considering the cost-of-living crisis where citizens need to prioritise paying for their basic household needs such as food and bills, before considering other expenditures such as paying for an internet connection package.
You know, I think I pay like £30 a month, but people pay £40 £50 to £60 and then where are the affordable Internet schemes? But I could talk about affordable Internet schemes all day. They even aren’t cheap enough (P1).
Evidence for the lack of affordability of “social tariffs” for internet access has recently been presented in 4 recent publications. These include reports from the current authors, Promising Trouble, and BT. The conclusion of these reports is that social tariffs are currently outside the affordability criteria of many citizens, especially those on very low incomes or dependent on benefits such as Universal Credit.
In a similar manner, the sustainability of specifically third sector organisations is greatly impacted by the funding available. Especially as it is from some of those sources of funding that members of staff are employed to perform digital inclusion duties with their service users. One of the participants from a voluntary sector organisation mentioned that due to lack of funding, it was not possible to continue in the role of digital inclusion support officer and was moved to a different post. The lack of sustainability of funding to keep digital inclusion workers in their posts has subsequently impacted the service users on the ground.
So, I moved onto a different role, and they weren’t able to refund the position of a full-time digital support officer (P3).
Again, this finding is consistent with results in other UK regions. A recent report by the Digital Media and Society team on digital inclusion interventions in Greater Manchester, GMCA Digital Inclusion Pilot: Research Report, noted staffing challenges for organisations undertaking digital inclusion work. Often there was limited support for specialised digital inclusion roles. For example, to support a full-time digital inclusion officer in a social housing provider. Also, there was a lack of senior leadership roles with responsibility for digital inclusion. Digital inclusion leads were often lower and within one ‘leg’ of the organisation. For example, in the ‘education’ or ‘infrastructure’ part of the organisation. These issues created friction and barriers to delivery. They also limited better coordination with other stakeholder groups from local government to internet service providers.
According to some of the organisations interviewed, the provision of digital support within rural communities is very often covered by third sector organisations, public libraries, and community centres. P4, commented that third sector organisations cover a wide area of the digital services available in Wales and argued that there is a need for the government to invest more into the third sector to deliver digital services.
I think local authorities, either through Welsh Government or UK Government need to invest in digital…So I think it would be good to have funding to be able to support third sector organizations to deliver digital skills training, recruit volunteers to support individuals…We do rely on the support of the charitable sector and that needs to be recognised that this drive is being driven by third sector (P4).
Overall, the organisations working with vulnerable communities argued that more funding is needed to carry out the digital inclusion work that organisations do. A participant mentioned that at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, funding was readily available for them as an organisation, however, financial support seemed to have decreased lately which impacted the level of service provision these organisations can offer:
I keep on going back to COVID because it was a bit of a life changer and I think with digital; we were seeing money was coming forward. But since then, I feel as if the digital impetus, the drive to get digital on the agenda has dropped a little bit (P4).
To address the barrier of affordability of internet access and devices, organisations such as the National Data Bank (a service provided by Good Things Foundation), and other reuse/recycling schemes, can provide citizens with access to free data and unused devices. P4 mentioned a 2-month loan scheme where they offer individuals the chance to purchase these devices at a reduced cost following the 2-month period. Individuals will often purchase these as they've become familiar with them, however if they are unable to purchase these due to costs, P4 will offer to extend the loan scheme. Selling the devices is also beneficial for the organisation because they can buy new stock and get rid of older stock so ‘it is a win win really for us’ (P4)
In this respect, there needs to be a coordinated approach taken forward by local authorities or the Welsh Government to share knowledge of existing resources and initiatives that offer free data and device loaning schemes. For this to occur, communication channels should be formally established which will contribute to the idea of working in collaboration towards a collective target.
Digital Skills and education
If and when individuals are provided with the devices that are adequate for accessing the internet, it is important to provide people with the right skills. Organisations noted that in a society where digital innovations are fast paced, it is very difficult for citizens to be continually up to date with the latest features and functions shown in the quote below. Teaching digital skills also heavily relies on there being the human resources to sit and teach individuals.
People might start doing these tasks, but in time they are going to ask more questions. They are going to want more things. As more and more technology becomes available, you’ll probably need to learn them too to make life even easy, even better. And so, it that you know that that's kind of the journey they need to go on go on for that (P1).
One of the key themes that emerged from the interviews is the importance of educating citizens about the benefits of using the internet. Individuals who are not media literate, particularly those who are over the age of 60, are often unlikely to recognise the advantages of being online and the impact this can have on their everyday wellbeing, access to health services and skillset (shown in the quote below). Organisations mentioned different strategies they use to get people involved in their digital inclusion events, some of these include designing courses or activities around issues that have personal relevance for their users, such as playing music online, doing specific Google searches, taking and sending pictures.
How can someone who don't know the benefits of the Internet justify paying 15 to 20 pounds? for something you don't know (P1).
You know, if you came on to me and said, oh, you gotta buy this thing. It's £20 a month, your life will change. I'll probably go. I've survived till now. I'm gonna carry on the way I'm carrying on. That's what people would say, look, I lived my life now. I'm 50 years old, I'm 60 years old. I haven't needed it, so it’s about educating them, making them aware to these benefits and try to allow them to make an informed decision (P1).
Furthermore, it is important that individuals are educated in understanding how to buy the necessary equipment, for example it was commented that even going through the door of a shop to buy a computer is hard when people are asking what sort of RAM or memory card they require. In addition to this, it is important that citizens are educated as to how to get the best value for money when choosing both equipment and data packages.
Meeting the Minimum Digital Living Standard
To meet the Minimum Digital Living Standard (as defined in the introductory paragraph) participants argued that there needs to be coordinated collaboration between statutory bodies, third sector organisations and any other parties that may be responsible for digital inclusion provision (also see the report from Phase 1 of the project).
Collaborative work with libraries and community hubs is proven to be successful for providing adequate connectivity, activities, and a safe environment for citizens. However, experiences in Wales and across other areas of the UK have demonstrated that other actors, such as housing associations and internet service providers should be brought on board. Social Housing Providers are ideal partners in the quest to tackle digital exclusion. Research indicates that a notable proportion of those digitally excluded or with low digital skills live in some form of social housing or are supported via benefits in the rented sector (for example see Yates et. al. (2020) and Tyrell et. al. (2023). Social Housing Providers therefore have a strategic role as providers of a wide range of services, their interaction with other major service providers, and their first-hand knowledge about their housing tenants’ needs. Approaching partners with this sort of profile will allow for the effective dissemination of information to large sectors of the population. Similarly, experiences of partnership work with Internet Services Providers (ISP’s) such as the pilot scheme rolled out by Greater Manchester Combined Authority, is an illustration of an interesting example of how to explore different avenues to implement digital inclusion policies.
When prompted about effective ways to help citizens to achieve a Minimum Digital Living Standard, participants mentioned existing networks and initiatives such as the Digital Inclusion Alliance Wales Network and Digital Communities Wales as good practice examples that offer practical solutions to digital inclusion issues on the ground. P3, emphasised the benefits of being part of the Digital Alliance Network in terms of partnering with organisations to best support the interests of the people they are working with.
I had mentioned it earlier, is Digital Communities Wales, they have been fantastic, and I think the Digital Alliance Network is quite handy for partnering with organisations and hearing about initiatives to sort of support the people that we’re working with (P3).
One important observation was the idea of establishing a collective target as at present, according to participants, there appears to be a lack of communication and coordination between many public and voluntary sector organisations that offer similar digital inclusion and digital literacy programmes across the same geographical area.
…but what I would probably say something which I think would be really beneficial is like a collective target (P1).
This would be beneficial as at present people are doing digital volunteering individually, whereas if organisations work in partnership, then this is more likely to have a greater impact. It was argued that it is fundamental that both organisations and grass roots digital volunteers are clear about what the target is.
Although all participants agreed that having a Minimum Digital Living Standard for Wales is desirable and a positive measure in principle, one participant expressed concerns about a perceived underlying idea of standardisation inherent in the concept, by arguing that it needs to be balanced by the recognition of the diversity of those to be impacted by the MDLS. The organisations argued that establishing a flexible approach is desirable to the MDLS as this will translate into recognising the individuality of those who will need extra support to achieve their own goals within their own capabilities. This applies to people who live with health conditions, those with lower literacy levels, as well as those who might not want any involvement with the digital.
… we try and help them get the best out of the life that they've got and help them lead the best life they can and that very much is the same sort of aim with the Minimum Digital Living Standard, I think it's recognizing that people will want to learn in different ways and want to access things in different ways in different places (P2).
We would note that this flexibility is in fact inherent to the MDLS. It is intended as a starting point for discussions with households, communities, and service providers about the specific needs of households. Especially where there may be additional needs due to things such as disability, long term ill health, or second language acquisition. What we take from the comments is a need to clearly communicate this flexible aspect when rolling out MDLS based interventions or using the MDLS as a benchmark.
When establishing a MDLS, 1 organisation commented that from the onset it is important that people are not left out, for example members of the community that don´t want to engage need to be acknowledged, and it is not only older people (over 60s). P2 observed that standards can be quite rigid as they force people into a box whereas it is important that services provide tailor made solutions that suit the individual needs of citizens, for example P4 build digital tablets according to the interests of the user. Adopting a flexible approach is crucial, meaning that you are working with individuals:
… It is about recognising that you are not going to have one silver bullet. It's gonna be a graded approach if you like, a broader approach (P2).
In summary, participants underlined the need for collaboration between statutory bodies and third sector organisations to achieve the best application of the Minimum Digital Living Standard.
Conclusions and key messages
This section of the report is mainly based upon the findings from interviews conducted with members of the DIAW who work with more marginalised communities likely to be below the W-MDLS as well as reflections on the interviews with stakeholders from Phase 1 of the project. The interviews have sought to identify and discuss the barriers that prevent vulnerable and digitally excluded citizens, that the organisations work with, getting online and becoming digitally enabled. The identified barriers are:
- infrastructure (connectivity and internet speed)
- access to devices and equipment
- digital skills and education.
These are well known issues in the digital inclusion policy space but clearly have specific nuances in the Welsh context.
Internet connectivity was particularly emphasised as problematic in geographically remote regions in Wales. This lack prevents citizens carrying out basic everyday tasks such as internet banking, shopping, health appointments, to name a few. Even with connectivity, individuals do not always have access to reliable devices for carrying out such tasks which are fit for purpose as these are often second hand. The organisations we spoke to are working towards providing equipment to those they are working with, for example via iPad loan schemes at local libraries, however long-term solutions are needed.
Regarding affordability and funding, internet packages are still costly and with the cost-of-living crisis, citizens must be able to afford to meet their basic needs as well as to be able to afford reliable internet connectivity. Organisations agreed that there is a general need for the government to invest more funding to support citizens with the tools to be online. They emphasised that the third sector would particularly benefit from this as they cover a wide area of the digital services available in Wales. They argued that more funding is needed to support volunteers and those on the ground needed to achieve the MDLS.
Considering the increasing demand to access resources online, it is important that citizens are educated both about the benefits of having connectivity as well as with the digital skills to safeguard themselves online. The organisations we interviewed stressed the importance of support networks such as libraries as a point-of-access for reliable internet connectivity and online support sessions, as well as tablet loaning schemes. Highlighted in one interview was the importance of digital support being an ongoing process for vulnerable groups considering the fast-paced society we live in where technology is constantly developing. When establishing a MDLS they stressed that it is important that it is continually reassessed considering this constant change.
One of the barriers organisations focused on is the fact that people who do not have experience of using digital devices feel intimidated by the acquisition of a new skill and using devices that, as mentioned above, are not always fit for purpose. Faulty devices were identified as a main hindrance in the process of teaching people digital skills. As this leads to frustrations and citizens thinking it is their fault for not knowing how to use equipment, rather than equipment being old and/or slow.
According to participants there is a tangible lack of communication and coordination between many public and voluntary sector organisations that offer similar digital inclusion and digital literacy programmes across the same geographical area. This duplication of services translates into low uptake numbers for the activities per organisation and lack of variety of the services offered. A coordinated approach among organisations and service providers could identify existing needs that can materialise in tailor made solutions for those areas. Considering this, organisations recommended that, for the MDLS, collaboration between partners is important to make best use of the available resources. In addition to this, a collective approach should be developed to reduce this duplication that all parties are both aware of and working towards. As commented by P3, membership of the Digital Alliance Networks allows for partnering with organisations. One recommendation is the idea of the collective target could be implemented through the DIAW.
Finally, it was noted that housing associations are an ideal partner to tackle digital exclusion, as well as internet service providers who should be brought on board. It is fundamental that it is acknowledged that some members of the community may not wish to engage digitally, and they should be considered when setting such a standard. It is a two-way relationship where individuals need to be supported to overcome their fears of being online.
In talking with both families below the MDLS and with stakeholders working with such households we draw several key conclusions:
- It may be obvious but digital exclusion is inseparable from social exclusion and wealth inequalities/poverty. However, as noted by both families and stakeholders’ digital exclusion can and does amplify these issues in the context of an ever more digital society.
- Conversations with families reinforced the relevance and importance of the equipment, practical skills, and safety skills elements of the MDLS.
- The MDLS is a baseline starting point but the specific challenges different households face in meeting the MDLS need to be considered in interventions. As do the additional needs of specific households (such as those where a member is disabled).
- The work with families makes clear the importance of digital access for contemporary life, and implications where it is lacking, not only because of the difference it makes to the convenience of everyday tasks, communication, and family organisation, but because of the impact it has on their social inclusion, wellbeing and opportunities.
- Both families and stakeholders identified affordability as a key barrier. As noted in the Phase 1 report, Towards a Welsh minimum digital living standard: final report, affordability is not part of the MDLS definition which outlines what people need. Affordability relates to having the financial resources to meet those needs. It remains one of the major barriers to digital access and digital services for low-income households and vulnerable groups.
- Research with families made clear that there is no ‘one size fits’ all solution and that needs vary. For example, households face additional barriers and have additional needs where a parent and/or child is disabled or has a health condition, are Welsh speaking, or are living in an area with poor internet provision. The MDLS is designed to be flexible and reflect family composition, and the research with families highlighted specific considerations and challenges for those in various family circumstances and living situations. It is also designed to be a general starting point from which additional and specific needs can be identified.
- Both stakeholders and families have noted that current social tariffs though welcome are not fit for purpose. Families said that they were not adequate for household needs (in terms of speed/data rates) and stakeholders noted their current unaffordability for some groups. This fits with research by the current report authors, Promising Trouble and BT.
- Both stakeholders and families have raised concerns about the availability and quality of infrastructure to support access.
- As with much prior work on digital exclusion the research found that provision of devices or short-term connectivity alone is not enough to ensure sustained digital engagement for lower income households and vulnerable groups. As implied by the MDLS, provision of support for both adults and children to gain skills, both practical and critical is also needed.
- Stakeholders seeking support households with digital inclusion have identified key barriers to their work and to supporting the delivery of a Welsh MDLS:
- Funding for support activities: especially long term rather than project-by-project
- Coordination: the need to coordinate offers in regions and locations to maximise the value of interventions. Though the research team would note from other work that existing co-ordination in Wales appears much higher than other parts of the UK, especially current provision in England with the notable exception of Greater Manchester.
- Digital skills and education: greater support for the delivery of tailored digital skills and education across different communities and age groups.
We would therefore offer the following reflections on the future policy potential for MDLS in Wales. A W-MDLS provides a framework for assessing both needs of citizens and optimum policy interventions at the level of the household, communities, and the Welsh nation. MDLS is not simply a “list of kit and skills” rather it is a starting point for considering the extent to which specific households fall below a nationally and deliberatively derived standard.
This standard has been created to mark the point below which any specific lack may have consequences for a household’s ability to engage with an ever more digital society. A lack of devices might limit access to education, or a lack of skills may lead to a greater risk of online harms. MDLS is also a starting point for discussions about the needs of households within specific groups, such as those with disabled members or having English as a second language. It is also a tool for assessing digital inclusion in context.
That context might be technical, such as a lack of broadband availability, or social, such as a lack of local adult digital training support. Taken together these features provide a basis for policy makers and practitioners to identify the key barriers households or communities face and consider the best intervention in that context. A Welsh MDLS can therefore be used to provide general baselines for both the nation and specific communities as well as be deployed as a tool to assess the specific needs of individual household.
This research work in Wales has highlighted key areas that MDLS can help when thinking about current policy, including the need:
- for a balance between broadband and mobile phone access for all communities in Wales
- to support functional and critical skills training, both in school and in post-18 environments
- to build on and increase coordination within, among, and between community groups and government seeking to support those offline or with low digital skills
- to lobby for alternatives to the current social tariffs as a starting point for access
Appendix 1: MDLS for households with children
Digital goods and services
- With sufficient reliability and speed to support all family members to access the internet at the same time.
Mobile phone and data
- An entry-level smart phone per parent and secondary school age child + 5GB data per month each.
- An extra 3GB of data per month if they have a child of pre-school or primary school age.
- An entry level laptop per household, parent(s) and first child share one device.
- An additional device for every further school age child.
- A set of headphones for school age children.
Television and TV subscription
- A smart TV, entry-level 32” screen.
- An entry-level TV subscription service (e.g., Netflix, Disney+) in addition to a TV license.
- An entry-level smart speaker.
Gaming console and subscription
- A gaming console and an entry-level online gaming subscription.
The skills outlined below are needed by parents, and colours indicate the age/stage by which children need to begin developing these skills, according to parents and young people.
Practical and functional skills
Using digital devices, programmes and the internet
- Using device functions (Pre-school).
- Using apps and programmes (Early primary school).
- Downloading apps and programmes (Late primary school).
- Saving and recovering documents (Late primary school).
- Connecting devices to the internet/hotspots (Late primary school).
- Changing settings (Early secondary school).
- Using Zoom/Teams/Google classrooms (Late primary school).
- Performing browser searches (Late primary school).
- Using school apps (homework, school-home communication) (Early secondary school).
- Creating an email account and sending emails (Late secondary school).
- Online bookings and forms (e.g., appointments) (Late secondary school).
- Cashless/online payments (Late secondary school).
Managing and monitoring digital devices and data usage
- Creating and sorting files and folders (Early primary school).
- Turning off devices properly (Early primary school).
- Deleting old files to manage device storage (Late primary school).
- Monitoring and managing phone data usage (Early secondary school).
Skills for Understanding and Managing Digital Risks
- Using secure passwords (Late primary school).
- Knowing about and avoiding in-app purchases (Late primary school).
- Using phone safety features out and about (e.g., ‘triple tap’ or ‘SOS’) (Early secondary school).
- Monitoring banking activity online (Late secondary school).
- Removing bank card details to avoid accidental purchases (Late secondary school).
- Knowing how to apply parental controls (Parents).
Interacting with others
- Evaluating what details to share online (Early primary school).
- Identifying risks (e.g., scams, unsafe links, catfishers, groomers) (Early primary school).
- Evaluating friend requests (Late primary school).
- Managing social pressures and time online (Late primary school).
Sharing and receiving information
- Evaluating quality of information (e.g., identifying mis/disinformation or unrealistic images) (Late primary school).
- Knowing how to avoid and report inappropriate/offensive content (Late primary school).
- Understanding digital footprint (Early secondary school).
Appendix 2: methods for family and household research
The research comprised 8 interviews with families who have dependent age children. Interviews were with a parent/guardian or parents and children. The interview questions were semi-structured and flexible to allow child participants to respond to questions as and when they felt comfortable, but without the expectation that they needed to stay for the duration of the interview. Interviews took place in the family home, except one which was held in a private space at a community venue.
Children and young people were present during most interviews and joined in at varying degrees; those who took part were aged between 7 and 19. Procedures for informed consent and assent were approved by the Loughborough University Ethics Advisory Committee. Separate participant information sheets were tailored for parents and for children of different ages; they were also available in English and Welsh. Young participants aged 15 or below confirmed their assent, either by writing their name on an assent form or using stickers, depending on their age. Young participants aged 16 and above provided written informed consent. Parents provided written informed consent for their own participation as well as for the participation of children involved in the research.
Participants were recruited with the help of Cwmpas, a development agency who promote digital inclusion in Wales. They shared information about the research across their network of organisations whose staff then identified potential participants. The Welsh Government were interested in households whose circumstances may impact on both their digital needs, as well as their ability to meet those needs in the context of MDLS. This meant including families who faced challenges in accessing the range of devices, internet connection, or skills and knowledge outlined in the MDLS framework. Families were purposively recruited to the study to include these key dimensions as far as possible within this small-scale study, and to capture variation in families’ needs across a range of experiences.
The 8 families who took part had between 1 and 5 children (living at home) aged 3 to 19 and included: single parent and couple households, parents who were in paid work and those who were not; parents with caring responsibilities; people who were engaged in voluntary work; parents and/or children with physical and mental health conditions; families from an ethnic minority background; families living in rented (social, private, temporary) and owned accommodation; and from urban and rural areas of Wales, including a Welsh speaking family.
Appendix 3: stakeholder data collection
The research comprised 4 interviews with stakeholder organisations working with households below the MDLS. The findings also draw on the prior interviews with stakeholder organisations from Phase 1 of the project. The interview questions were semi-structured and flexible to allow exploration of topics in depth.
The team have also been conducting similar interviews with organisations across the UK and insights from these supported the interpretation of the Welsh fundings. Details of all the organisations are listed in the sections below. Procedures for informed consent and assent were approved by the University of Liverpool Ethics Advisory Committee.
Phase 1: organisations interviewed
- Cardiff Council (Digital Support Services)
- The Big Issue
- Swansea MAD
- Citizens Online
- Learning Foundation
- University of Wales Trinity St David
- Newport City Council
- University of South Wales
- Digital Health and Care Wales
- Computer Recyclers Wales
- Carers Trust Wales
- UNITE North West Retired Members Branch
- Medrwn Mȏn
- BCUHB health board
- Diverse Cymru
- RWG Mobile
- Cyngor Gwynedd
- Powys County Council
- Ystradgynlais Mind
- ProMo Cymru
Phase 2: in depth interviews
- Cymdeithas Tai Newydd Housing Association
- Powys living well service
- Pembrokshire Association of Voluntary Services (PAVS)
Other UK digital inclusion policy interviews
- Birmingham City Council
- Welsh Government
- Smart Lyte
- Glasgow Golden Generation
- Education Scotland
- Coventry Libraries/ libraries connected
- Internet Matters
- Liverpool City Region Combined authority
- Ability Net
- Promo Cymru
- The Brain Charity
- Red Chair Highland
We are grateful to Cwmpas, the Digital Inclusion Alliance for Wales, and the organisations who were instrumental in the recruitment of participants for the research. This includes: Cyngor Sir Ceredigion County Council; Digital Communities Wales; Faith in Families; Homestart Cymru; ILA Wales; Linc Cymru Housing Association; Merthyr Tydfil Housing Association; Trivallis Housing; Wales and West Housing.
Importantly we would like to thank the staff in Welsh Organisations and especially the families who took part in the interviews, who so generously gave their time and shared their views and experiences with us.
We would also like to thank our various academic and work colleagues who have been sounding boards and critical friends for the work. Finally, and by no means last, we would like to thank our colleagues at the Welsh Government, especially Lisa Thomas and Stephen Thomas for all their input to the project and the report.
We are grateful for the funding support provided by Welsh Government for this project. Also, for the support of the Nuffield Foundation and Nominet for the UK wide research to develop a UK Minimum Digital Living Standard (MDLS). The views expressed are those of the authors and not necessarily the Foundation or Nominet.
About this report
- Rebecca Harris
- Katherine Hill.
- Patricia Barrera.
- Simeon Yates.
- Chloe Blackwell.
- Loughborough University.
- University of Liverpool.
- Good Things Foundation.
- Swansea University.