I’m currently writing up my PhD thesis: “How does the use of mobile phones by 16-24 year old socially excluded women affect their capabilities?”
This research is concerned with the use of mobile devices by young, socially excluded women in the UK and is framed by the inequalities they might be seen to be experiencing. It is driven by gaps in the data that have been identified in both the literature and data on the use of technology – and in particular mobile devices – by socially excluded young women.
This research looks at how the instrumental, maintenance and communicative affordances of mobile technology might provide young women with possibilities of action, or impede them from taking action in particular to address issues of social exclusion related to work, health, education and housing. This allows us to critically examine the role of mobile technology in allowing women to exercise their capability to lead lives they value.
This research is based on the findings from semi-structured interviews in my home city of Brighton with 30 women between the ages of 16-24. All these women could be seen as ‘socially-excluded’ in some way: whether through being unemployed, homeless, living on a low income in insecure housing or experiencing teenage single motherhood.
Initial conclusions from this research show that some positive use was being made by respondents to address issues of social exclusion relating to work, health, education and housing. So, for example, women were able to look for housing and work opportunities on their phones. However women were challenged by the small screen and limited text input functionality to use their phones effectively to apply for jobs. The structural inequality experienced by young women was also an issue in that women in this study were doing jobs and apprenticeships in roles such as childcare which are poorly paid and attract more women.
This study also revealed that the women in this study might be paying a ‘poverty premium’ for their phones, with some paying as much as 15% of their income on contracts. 40% of respondents had experienced financial problems paying for their phones, leading to intermittent connectivity.
Gender issues were also significant as it emerged that some women were paying off contracts for ex-partners. Women were challenged by having to navigate complex ‘assemblages’ of mobile phone contracts, operators and devices which left them feeling powerless.
The lives of the women in this study were inextricably entwined with their phones. All the women who were interviewed had a mobile phone. Even those women who were not using smartphones and made a point of sharing their distaste for smartphone culture had feature phones. For the women in this study who were homeless or socially isolated because they were at home with small children their mobile phones were a vital means to access emotional and social support.
Having to charge and repair phones is a nuisance for most people, but for women who are insecurely housed and on limited incomes these issues are more critical.
More than half of women in this study had no computer their mobile phones were their main means to get online. This suggests that the intermittent connectivity caused by these issues might lead to digital exclusion.