My response to the recent report from the Oxford Internet Institute and the Nominet Trust on young people living outside the ‘digital mainstream’ “On the Periphery Understanding Low and Discontinued Internet Use Amongst Young People in Britain” is going to take a couple of blog posts – its such a rich and important piece of work. It is the first time I’ve seen an exploration of the “..significant minority of young people who are not able to navigate or connect properly with the online world” and the implications this has for the lives and opportunities of these young people. It vividly demonstrates how wrong it is to typecast young people as ‘digital natives’.
But for now I’m just going to take up one point raised in the report – (somewhat predictably) about the references to mobile phones. The report states how important mobile phones are in the lives of young people – “Mobile phones were typically considered to be very important for communication, and for the majority of interviewees their phone better met their social needs than the Internet.” The researchers go on to say that “It is worth stressing here, that those who had any kind of experience of using the Internet on a mobile device tended to describe it as being quite limited due to issues with speed, usability and cost” and that therefore “The notion of the mobile as a solution to digital exclusion seems to us not sufficient and based on inaccurate assumptions about this group.”
Further on they say “We also found that while mobile phones or BlackBerrys can in some ways compensate for a lack of Internet, particularly when it comes to social functions and applications, they are not a sustainable solution with regard to purposes such as applying for jobs, education, and the search for housing, which were the main priorities for most of the young discontinued Internet users we interviewed.”
Anybody who has struggled to use mobile versions of websites might agree that its often a frustrating, time consuming process. For those young people described in the report who are challenged by a lack of cognitive resources – such as literacy skills – this must definitely be an issue.
But I have three challenges to the notion that mobiles aren’t a ‘solution’ to digital inclusion.
Firstly, there isn’t a single ‘solution’ to digital inclusion – as the report’s authors suggest in their conclusions (page 37) a raft of strategies are required.
Secondly, mobile technologies are very fast moving and the price of mobile data will change – so that may remove some of the barriers to ‘instrumental’ uses of mobile internet by young people.
Thirdly, there is the issue of user interface – and how we can address these challenges through better usability.
I just took a look at the Beta version of the gov.uk site on my Smartphone – checking out my entitlement to free childcare as an example of the kind of information a young, lone parent looking to return to work might be interested in. The stripped down, intuitive interface was easy to get to and clearly laid out and the language was plain and clear.
I don’t think mobile phones are ‘the’ solution to digital inclusion – what I do think is that the gov.uk site shows that a focus on usability has a role to play in overcoming digital inclusion by making it easier for anyone to access information about their rights and opportunities. We shouldn’t give up on mobiles just yet.