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Disconnected from physical activity

Our head of digital innovation explains the dangerous, and for many unnoticed, digital divide and what's being done to make sure nobody's left behind.

23rd November 2022

by Adam Freeman-Pask
Head of digital innovation, Sport England

We live in a world where our digital and physical lives are entwined.

We take for granted how much we do online, from everyday shopping to booking holidays, to managing our health or contacting a GP.  

Many of us have come to accept the digital direction and we either appreciate it making our lives simpler, like getting deliveries to our door; or tolerate it as things we just have to use, like mobile pay-and-go parking apps.

But what about people for whom this isn’t the norm? those who are not part of this digital revolution? For some, 'digital' is a divide that is leaving them behind, isolating them, and creating an unequal society.

That’s why when I read the Lloyds Bank 2022 Consumer Digital Index, which quantifies how digitally connected we are in the UK, it made me sit up and take note.

Acknowledging the digital divide

This study highlights that whilst more people are venturing online, the major problem is that one in five people, over 10.2 million of us, lack the digital skills to do the basics, such as connect to a Wi-Fi network or open a web browser.

Worryingly, this figure has remained largely static despite the uptake of digital technology during the pandemic.

Those most at risk are older adults, disabled people, and people who are unemployed or on low incomes.

These sections of our society also stand the most to gain from being physically active, so we don’t want to, unintentionally, create a digital barrier to them achieving this.

For some, 'digital' is a divide that is leaving them behind, isolating them, and creating an unequal society.

The digital divide is caused by barriers such as a lack of digital skills, but also low access to devices, internet connectivity and poorly planned accessibility for disabled people.

So this is something we want to highlight and make sure we help overcome by using the right approaches to help people engage with sport and physical activity, be it with non-digital or digital skills support, to ensure no-one is left behind.    

We have explored alternatives to digital support in campaigns like We Are Undefeatable and TV and tabloid press have been highlighted as good alternatives to reaching people who are digitally excluded.

But if we agree digital platforms are useful and go with the digital direction of travel, we need to be teaching people the skills to use them.

This is a strong need, not only from a human perspective, but also from an economic one.

The benefits of being online

The Centre for Economics and Business Research has calculated that just shy of £10 of economic profit is achieved for every £1 invested in digital skills.

The problem is that traditional digital skills courses sometimes overlook the importance of teaching people how to use digital platforms to be physically active - be that by finding things like equipment, booking pitches or using online workout platforms.

But a good example of solving this issue is the Get Out Get Active initiative. This campaign provided activity sessions for disabled people alongside digital skills sessions to help them grow in confidence and find other suitable activities.

This is the kind of blended approach that we need to follow to make sure everybody is able to make the most of any digital opportunities.

A woman checks her phone during a weighlight session in an indoors gym

So in addition to teaching people digital skills, we also need to keep things simple and easy to use in the first place.

This is a preference that’s backed by research from Beyond Empower, an organisation in Greater Manchester that works to make activity, health and general life more accessible and inclusive for disabled people.  

According to their study, seven out of 10 people preferred the simplicity of platforms like Zoom and YouTube for online activity classes.

Closing the gap

I have raised my concerns about the digital divide and how it could be an issue for people getting physically active, but I can’t articulate the damaging impact of the digital divide on people’s lives better than award-winning poet Sophia Thakur.

As she puts it “the (digital) divide is beyond costly”.

It can be a hugely negative impact on a person’s life, through increased isolation and lack of access to services, which can lead to poorer health outcomes and a lower life expectancy.

I recommend watching her performance ‘The Divide’, which was part of an initiative earlier this year with Vodafone to highlight the impact of being disconnected.

Fortunately, action is underway to close the digital divide.

Organisations like Good Things Foundation are leading with national initiatives like the Network of local online centres that run digital skills courses, devices are available to those who need them from the National Device Bank and free data is provided by the National Data Bank.

But these national initiatives aren’t enough to solve the whole problem and, as we know, a lot of the time sport and physical activity can be an afterthought.

At a local level we need to be mindful of digital inclusion and be considerate of people that could be excluded when running a club, a class or an activity.

And if we do expect people to go online to book, find information or communicate, we should be supporting people with learning the digital skills to do so or partnering with local digital support services to make sure help is at hand.

Further reading

If you would like to learn more about digital inclusion and those working to close the digital divide I would recommend the following organisations and resources:

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