During the lockdowns caused by the pandemic we worked with partners at Youth Engagement Slough (YES) to create a truly comprehensive online youth work programme. Partners came together to ensure there was a free activity every evening for young people, from poetry workshops with Empoword, to social action and specialist provisions for young carers and young women.
Participation numbers were generally strong, despite our unfamiliarity with online meetings at the time. However, we were determined to find out who was missing and why. We wanted to provide support, where possible, so that those who could not join us online due to not having a device could access one. We designed a questionnaire which received over fifty responses. The report we compiled, summarising our findings, can be downloaded here.
At the time of the report’s completion, there was a great deal in the media about ‘the digital divide,’ the idea that there was a digital world of haves and have-nots – people who could access the internet and those who could not. We found the concept did not reflect the majority of the young people’s lived experiences. Most of them were crossing this ‘digital divide’ but their access was often less than ideal. It involved sharing devices with siblings. It was also characterized by a reliance on smartphones, rather than laptops.
These findings led us to coin the term ‘digital tightrope’ because it conveyed that most of the young people were crossing the divide, but not without considerable difficulty. The sense that different young people within the same household had to debate who’s access to a provision was more important came across very clearly. It was also apparent that digital access for some families was dependent on one device, often a mobile phone – if it were to break, they would be stuck on the wrong side of the divide until it was fixed.
So why re-share this now when the world has changed since the pandemic? Young people’s digital access is required more than ever before. As the cost of living crisis looms, and tragic household debates about “food or fuel” are highlighted, it is likely that young people from the poorest backgrounds will continue to struggle to access the IT which will give them the best chance of using digital tools to their fullest extent – including those for academic study and mental health. We need to be mindful of the digital tightrope that many children and young people traverse in order to get online and to access online opportunities, particularly as we move towards a significant economic downturn and the horrendous choices this will present to many of the poorest families.