Digitally Sidelined

It is mostly senior citizens who form the group of the digitally marginalised.
It is mostly senior citizens who form the group of the digitally marginalised. | Photo (detail): © picture alliance/Westend61/Uwe Umstätter

Signing petitions, booking a visit to the local swimming pool, home schooling – all kinds of everyday things work digitally today. Those who have no access to the internet or who have only limited digital skills could be marginalized in our society.

For a long time, the trains of the Deutsche Bahn (German Railways) were a digital diaspora. Travellers on trains could only make phone calls if there were cell towers near the railroad, not to mention surfing the net. Only after a certain amount of political pressure had been applied were the trains equipped with WLAN, at least in high-speed trains internet access now works tolerably well. In this case Germany as an industrial nation has caught up, but parts of the country are actually still in the digital development phase – there is no comprehensive fibre optic network, and, in rural regions in particular, there is no fast internet connection.
According to the European statistics agency, Eurostat, it was only five per cent of Germans who had never used the internet in 2019, around 90 per cent go online at least once a week. In some other EU countries it looks much worse. In Bulgaria, at the bottom of the EU's list, almost every fourth citizen has no access to the internet. Even in highly developed Italy, 17 per cent of respondents said they never use the internet. In Scandinavia, on the other hand, the countries are almost completely digitally networked.

Elderly and less educated people are being sidelined

Even if Germany is in the top third compared with other EU countries, the digital divide in politics is certainly a cause for concern. Federal Minister of Economics, Peter Altmaier, warns that the positive effects of digitalisation can only unfold “if the change is accepted by all social groups”. This is, however, not the case, despite growing acceptance. A survey of a good 22,000 households for the 2019 digital index of the D21 Initiative showed that almost every fifth household had been “digitally marginalized”. The average age of this group is around 70 years, most of them only own a simple cell phone or use the Internet very selectively, for example, for search queries or messenger services. The main reasons they cite are a lack of interest, the complexity of the Internet and little benefit. The proportion has recently decreased somewhat, but the initiative believes that the skepticism in this population group is becoming more and more widespread.
Nevertheless, people do actually have an inkling of how important the connection to the digital age is for their personal progress. 43 per cent of respondents said that new technologies have already changed their work processes. Four out of five see lifelong learning as a key factor in their professional success. At the same time, 40 per cent of the less educated employees perceive this as a burden.
This section of the population, which often has only a low income, is the most important group of the “marginalised”, alongside the elderly. While 97 per cent of the more highly educated use the Internet regularly, this is the case for only two thirds of people with a lower formal education. It is these people who also lag behind, often significantly, in many areas of competence – be it installing apps and carrying out updates, operating data protection settings, recognising what is an advertisement and what is not, or distinguishing legitimate from dubious messages.

Wanted! A better digital education

The consequences for people who have digitally missed the boat can be serious. Those who do not go online quite often participate less in the social life of a community. For example, more and more public services are only available online. During the Corona lockdown, local authority offices were closed and often only accessible digitally, even swimming pool tickets had mostly to be booked online in the summer of 2020. People looking for a job increasingly have to use the Internet and, with the Corona crisis, the network-based home office may well have finally made the breakthrough into everyday working life.
This is also underlined by a non-representative study by Claudia Crummenerl from the consulting company, Capgemini, in which the situation in four European countries, the USA and India was examined. “We saw in the study that being offline can lead to isolation, loneliness or a feeling of inadequacy,” reports Crummenerl. For example, almost half of the respondents without internet access stated that they would feel more connected to friends and family if they had access to the internet. In addition, many believe that they would then be able to find better-paying jobs and have more opportunity to undergo further training. “Due to the Corona-enforced school closings and the switch to online lessons, children from households without access to the Internet or a laptop have fallen even more behind. For children, in particular, however, it is crucial for them to participate in digital education.” The results are fully in line with the German digital study. Above all, it also revealed that the digital training provided in schools was inadequate . Only every third German believes that the skills taught there are sufficient.