Low income and digital exclusion

Lyndsey Burton

There’s a story that we tell ourselves about poverty and digital exclusion: the poorest people are digitally excluded; digital exclusion perpetuates poverty: therefore, getting people online will help lift them out of poverty. Lyndsey Burton assesses the evidence.

Government campaigns to reduce digital exclusion, insofar as they have commented on low income at all, have followed this basic model, pointing to the increased job and education prospects of those with basic digital skills. However, research suggests that the relationship between low income and low digital engagement is more complicated. The factors that complicate it could help programs that seek to help people gain and improve digital skills

The simple link myth

In a study contrasting the 2004 Index of Multiple Deprivation (IMD) with postcode-linked data on ICT access, Longley (2008) found that while “high levels of material deprivation are generally associated with low levels of engagement with ICTs and vice versa” many areas showed low levels of engagement but weren’t materially deprived. Moreover, much research into digital exclusion (for example, Livingstone and Helsper 2007) picks out four indicators of exclusion - access, skills, attitudes, and types of engagement – some of which are more obviously correlated to material deprivation than others.

For example, many studies used to indicate levels of inclusion have focused on access statistics like the Office of National Statistics (ONS) data on how many households have home broadband. There are solid reasons for this. Home access can stand in for higher quality digital skills, for example, since it allows people to learn informally. But as internet-connected devices, most notably smartphones, proliferate, using home access as a measure for digital inclusion is becoming more biased toward lower income households. Mobile-only households are concentrated among those with low income (Ofcom 2006).

Nevertheless, there clearly are instances in which researchers have found links between various kinds of digital and social inclusion. I want to look briefly at just one of the most frequently cited economic benefits: increased educational attainment.

Digital inclusion and school attainment

Most UK children access the internet either at home or at school: just 13% go online less than once a week and only 3% are non users (Livingstone and Helsper 2007). Low socio-economic status children are disproportionately represented in that category. A number of studies seem to show that digital inclusion can lead to better educational attainment.

Institute for Fiscal Studies research (Chowdry, 2010) found that children that had access to the internet at home gained ten GCSE points on average, controlling for Key Stage 4. The same study found that under one in two participants from the poorest households have home internet access, compared to almost all participants from the richest families. Other studies have found links between high levels of internet use (better digital skills) and higher educational attainment.

Jackson (2006) found that children of socially deprived households who used the Internet more had higher scores on standardised tests of reading achievement than similar children who used it less. Studies that didn’t find an increase in attainment did find other positive correlations, such as increased self esteem among young technology users (Kirkup and Kirkwood 2005).

Practical outcomes

The UK’s 2010 digital participation plan warned that we are “moving from conferring advantage on those that have [digital skills], to conferring active disadvantage to those that are without.

Even though children have access to computers and the internet at school and learn some IT skills there, they are impacted by digital exclusion at home and, as we’ve seen, that disadvantage is strongly correlated to material and social disadvantages. It is worrying, then, that Government-backed schemes for free computers and other digital inclusion projects have been cut back in recent years.

Lyndsey Burton is the founder of Choose, which has covered the current schemes offering free and subsidised computers.


Chowdry, H. et al (2010) The role of attitudes and behaviours in explaining socio-economic differences in attainment at age 16. Institute for Fiscal Studies

Jackson et al (2006) Does Home Internet Use Influence the Academic Performance of Low-Income Children? Developmental Psychology Vol. 42, No. 3

Livingstone, S., and Helsper, E. J. (2007): Gradations in digital inclusion: Children, young people and the digital divide. New Media & Society, 9: 671-696.

Longley (2006) UCL Working Papers Series: Social Deprivation and Digital Exclusion in England Paper 145 - Aug 08

Ofcom (2006) The Consumer Experience: Research Report

UK National Plan for digital participation (2010)

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