Not all young people are Digital Natives

20 Jul 2021 Ryan Miller    Last updated: 20 Jul 2021

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash
Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Digital exclusion might not effect a huge proportion of children – albeit a lack of data makes it hard to be sure – but those who are excluded are at a massive disadvantage.


Not every child has an iPad.

That sounds like a first-world problem – and, in some senses, it is. But the problem is a real one, and significant.

For the past 25 years or so, we have shaped our economy and society around ever-increasing digitisation. That process is not finished. It is conceivable, for instance, that voting in both general and local elections will be moved online (or at least have an online option) in the near future, as has happened in Estonia.

More and more, access to the digital world is needed to do basic things as a citizen, as a worker, or simply as a member of society. The systems we create not only assume that this access exists, but that it is consistent and comprehensive.

The term Digital Native was coined two decades ago to describe the children of the day, and all subsequent generations, who will grow up in an era of ubiquitous technology, whose skills with that tech will be effortless, and who are able to navigate an increasingly digital landscape with ease, both because of their own skills and the blanket accessibility of the tech itself.

Yet this ubiquity is in question. New research shows that almost one in ten children in the UK (8%) have no home access to a desktop, laptop or tablet that is connected to the internet.


In June, the Carnegie UK Trust and Unicef UK published a joint paper, Closing the Digital Divide for Good, which outlined how some children have far less access to digital devices (and, therefore, the digital society we all use and rely on more and more) than their peers.

Per the report: “Digital exclusion is not a new issue. Though the Covid-19 pandemic laid bare the challenges children face, years of evidence have indicated an increasingly consequential digital divide for disadvantaged children.

“The myth of children as digital natives has permeated media narratives, driving children without access and skills further out of the spotlight…

“A large proportion of children and young people can access digital devices – in fact 92% of children aged 5-15 have access to a desktop computer, laptop or netbook which is connected to the internet at home.

“However, the remaining 8% represent children who already experience compounding disadvantage due to their socioeconomic status, and are at greater risk of falling behind their peers.”

The research found that 20% of UK houses do not have a fixed internet connection, 5% of householders are concerned they will not be able to keep paying for communications services over the coming months, while 2% of UK households are unable to access what might be called an adequate web connection (download speeds of 10Mb/s, and uploads at 1Mb/s).

That final issue – lack of good connection – could be a much bigger problem in Northern Ireland than in the UK in general, especially given the not-entirely-smooth roll out of Project Stratum, NI’s official scheme to improve connectivity in rural dark zones. However, new Economy Minister Gordon Lyons seems to understand the importance of the task at hand.

The Carnegie/Unicef report’s figures are all sourced from the “best available data”, with the paper highlighting a lack of official, substantial or proper baseline data to truly measure the levels of digital access among young people in the UK, and to track progress on this over time.

Action plan

Establishing a “consistent, accurate and regular system of data reporting” on digital exclusion is, in fact, one of the papers ten recommended actions that could help close the digital divide.

The others include establishing a shared definition of digital inclusion, reviewing online safeguarding, do further research on the drivers of exclusion (and how to address them), identify gaps in skills and support among teachers and other educators, and more.

One thing that may seem like an omission, on the part of the researchers, is a lack of acknowledgement of the availability of smartphones – which offer a similar suite of functionality as provided by tablets.

It seems likely that almost every house will have a smartphone. However, it is important to note that, for more substantial tasks (e.g. homework), using a phone as a research tool is its own challenge. While it may be better than nothing, it’s not the same as a device larger screen and the ability to type with more than just thumbs.

The number of children who really cannot properly access the internet at home is relatively small – but the effect on the lives of those children is massive.

Turning back the clock is not an option. There are a great many concerns about increased digitisation, but the immense benefits are also clear.

Covid-19 has had an enormous effect on economies and societies everywhere. But without our digital society, without the ability to work from home, to connect with loved ones, and to access culture and entertainment from almost anywhere, the pandemic would have been far worse - in some ways or in all.

This is as relevant to children as it is to anyone else. Digital lessons and other e-learning (even just reliable access to the internet, which contains near enough all human knowledge and learning, as well as all the nonsense) would not have been possible 20 years ago.

Yet it simply will not have been possible for everyone.

Digital access is no longer only a consumer issue. Digitisation is infrastructure. It should be treated as such.

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