(Illustration: Megan Salole/salole.co.nz/)

Disconnected under lockdown: What digital inequality looks like in a pandemic

When Covid-19 forced New Zealanders to live most of their lives online it exacerbated the effects of digital exclusion. Jean Teng spoke to the organisations that kept vulnerable communities connected during the pandemic.

From job hunting and banking to watching TV and scrolling through the news, there is hardly a corner of modern life untouched by the internet. A 2019 report from the Vodafone Foundation and InternetNZ, which focused on participants with lived experience of digital exclusion, found internet accessibility was essential to young people’s daily routines, even for those facing significant barriers around accessibility or digital capabilities. When a young person in Westport was asked what they used the internet for, they replied: “A better question might be, ‘what don’t people use the internet for?’”.

Most importantly, all participants cited the internet as integral to their social connection, both with loved ones and with a wider global network. It is often essential to fostering a sense of community that’d otherwise beimpossible. Things like social media, online videos, international WhatsApp calls and Google Maps seem so embedded in most of our lives that they no longer register to people as “going online”. Instead, they’ve become intertwined with our everyday functions – almost as vital as eating and drinking water.

The term “digital inclusion” encompasses what it really means to be a digital citizen. Not just an evaluation of the divide between those who have access to the internet and those who don’t, “digital inclusion” also includes an understanding of the motivation, core skills and trust in online services to utilise that technology.

Research shows that digital disadvantage affects already vulnerable groups – Māori and Pasifika youth, children with special needs, the elderly, and those from lower socio-economic communities or rural areas – the most. Not having internet access can have a disproportionately harmful impact on these groups who are experiencing social exclusion in other ways, or going through already volatile situations, even if they’re temporary.

Being able to fully participate in society is important. It’s undeniable that digital inclusion improves social inclusion, but there’s still a lot of work to be done. In the 2018 Census, 13.9% of New Zealand households reported they didn’t have access to the internet. A survey conducted by 20/20 Trust in 2014 uncovered that about 15% of households with school-aged children (around 62,000) couldn’t access the internet, putting them at an uneven playing field with their peers.

One of the biggest barriers to digital inclusion is cost and that includes the price of devices and monthly broadband connections, despite the cost of telco services declining by 3.8% in 2020. Financial barriers can also take unexpected forms, like the locked-in nature of some internet contracts which don’t allow for flexibility as money circumstances change, or the need to prioritise internet access when other bills need to be paid.

During the Covid-19 lockdown, feelings of disconnection were amplified as the inability to see other people meant many young people were isolated from their friends and whānau. Very quickly, it became obvious that the unpredictability of lockdown highlighted some consequences of digital exclusion in a very immediate way. Support was needed – urgently. In response, Vodafone New Zealand Foundation released $120,000 in emergency funds to its current community partners to ensure their work could continue even while Aotearoa retreated into our homes.

Vodafone donated 300 devices – with loaded sim cards – to ten community partners across the country, all of whom had different needs for the connection they supplied. Ngati Porou Hauora, for example, provided services to pregnant women in remote parts of the east coast where many didn’t have access to phones. Vision West distributed phones to rough sleepers they housed during lockdown while Te Aroha Noa, a community organisation based in Palmerston North, gave phones to rangatahi, who previously relied on daily visits to their centre, to still contact their social, youth and whānau workers when needed.

Phones and iPads also went to VOYCE – Whakarongo Mai, an organisation designed by and for young people with care experience (children raised in foster or whānau care). Having these devices could mean that a family with three teenagers wouldn’t have to share a single phone, or that someone living in isolated Ahipara could text their family, or that pressure would be taken off caregivers who might have many different young people staying with them at one time.

“This is 2020. Everyone is connected in some way, and it does set people apart if you don’t have digital equality,” Tracie Shipton, CEO of VOYCE said.

One of the core goals of VOYCE has always been to keep rangatahi in communication with each other and with their services. That proved difficult during the Covid-19 lockdown. Shipton explained that isolation is always a big issue for their care-experienced rangatahi, even without the further implications of a nationwide lockdown.

“Knowing that they wouldn’t have access to keep in contact with other people posed a big dilemma for us around how they might be emotionally,” Shipton said.

“If you’re feeling disconnected from your community because you’re placed in care and life isn’t running along the line you might have anticipated it would, and then you’re in a situation of being locked down and away from the connection of your family, then that’s massive.”

During the Covid-19 lockdown, feelings of disconnection were amplified (Illustration: Megan Salole)

At the centre of all the Vodafone Foundation’s work is an emphasis around listening to what communities need and prioritising the voices of the digitally excluded to understand lived experience. The essential part of the success of the donated devices was their immediate practical use. Even something as simple as including loaded sim cards made a big difference.

“They always consult with the young. They seem to know our community,” said Shipton.

These devices were clearly in demand, especially in pockets of isolated areas such as in Northland. Shipton recalled that most of the phones from the first round were sent up there, and when she told the Vodafone Foundation she’d ship the rest down to a centre in Ōtautahi, Vodafone asked if there was a specific need in the South Island. “We went, checked, got a particular number, and Vodafone delivered, which was incredible. And they were snapped up.”

The phones didn’t only provide a way to keep in contact through text messaging or calls – they also played a big role in facilitating participation in their Tuhono virtual events programme, including Tik Tok competitions and recipe challenges, which VOYCE ran through their website and Facebook. “That connection actually grew quite a care community,” Shipton said, “and it’s meant that we’ve been able to do follow-up work and stay engaged with that group, which has previously been a big challenge for us. It’s almost like it opened the gateway.”

It’s clear that this work had positive knock-on effects beyond lockdown. Along with creating tighter virtual communities that could continue to flourish in the future, the iPads also enabled young people in residences (those not living with families) to still have access to advocacy and still see who they were talking to. “It opened up a discussion around the use of technology to ensure that they can have contact with key people in a monitored but confidential way,” Shipton said. “They can contact their advocates and talk to them virtually if we’re not able to get there.”

The lockdown showed Shipton how important it was to have strong communication with their vulnerable groups of young people at all times, especially during periods of uncertainty. The measures they put into place will be helpful for the future, too. “For all we know, this pandemic might not be the only one we face.”

Lani Evans, Head of the Vodafone Foundation (Photo: supplied)

With Covid-19 increasing the dependence of New Zealanders on the internet to keep them in touch with the news and loved ones overseas, digital inclusion is now more important than ever. Having access to individual devices and therefore the internet is a positive start to realising digital inclusion, though addressing the bigger picture including other elements of trust, motivation and capability will require a broader look at social and economic barriers.

Digital inequality is about much more than just access, and any solution needs to look at the deeper issues creating online exclusion. Lani Evans, Head of the Vodafone Foundation, explains that we need to look at the bigger picture when tackling issues faced by disadvantaged youth.

“Simply throwing devices at people and walking away isn’t going to solve the digital divide. Instead, we need to take a considered approach and work with community organisations to prioritise access as well as online education to build trust in digital systems,” she says.

“Often people lack the capacity or motivation to get online, or they have more immediate priorities such as finding food and a safe place to sleep. However, being online is now essential – we need connectivity to access government services, find housing or apply for a job, so we need to look at digital inclusion holistically to ensure some of our most at-risk rangitahi don’t get left behind.”

Many solutions suggested by those who have experienced digital exclusion revolve around the idea of community, whether it’s establishing safe spaces for people to learn digital skills together or extending free wifi to accessible areas.

Other propositions, like the funding of free devices or creating customised mobile access portals where those in transition can access essential services, have been recommended with the advice that these should be delivered in a considered way through trusted community groups to avoid stigma and shame. These organisations, which actively represent and live in the communities they serve, are crucial in creating long-term, sustainable change. Because how are you going to know what people need unless you ask?




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