‘Smartphone only’ internet users locked out of digital life

Published by Citizens Advice Scotland on

Citizens Advice Scotland (CAS) are signatories to Scotland’s Digital Participation Charter. Five local Citizens Advice Bureau’s have engaged with SCVO’s Senior Leaders Programme and three have taken part in Digital Champion training. This blog on a recent report from CAS highlights the problems facing those who only have access to the internet via a smartphone. 

Four in ten of us use the internet to access public information or services. Six in ten of us bank online. The UK Government’s ‘Digital by Default’ strategy seeks to deliver online everything that can be delivered online. And we have an increasing number of ways to get online – smartphones, tablets, laptops and desktop computers.

Of these, smartphones are fast becoming the preferred means for accessing the internet, including Citizen Advice Scotland’s own website. Between August 2016 and August 2017, just under half of all our traffic came from mobile phones. In fact, two thirds of UK adults say they go online via their mobile phones, with 40% of Scottish internet users describing smartphones as their “most important” device for going online.

But what about those of us for whom this is not a choice? Who don’t have access to a tablet or laptop for more complex tasks? Last year we researched digital access amongst people using citizens advice bureaux, and found that 20% of internet users were wholly reliant on their phone for that access.

We found that people who were ‘smartphone only’ internet users were more likely to live in relatively deprived areas and to say that cost (of hardware, broadband, or data) was a barrier to them using the internet. And perhaps unsurprisingly, younger people were more likely to report being smartphone only internet users, with this being true for around three in ten 18-24 year olds and a similar proportion of 25-34 year olds.

However, in focus groups we found that while younger people were confident in using social media and certain apps, some struggled to access an email account. This is a vital skill for accessing many online services, and a central part of many workplaces.

Smartphone only internet users overall were less likely to report using email “daily”, and more likely to report using it “very rarely” than those with other ways of accessing the internet. The research also showed that smartphone only internet users were less confident carrying out standard tasks like downloading, saving, completing and uploading forms.

The implications of this are profound. Our findings suggest that people who access the internet only via a smartphone are doing so by circumstance, not by choice. Some of the standard tasks are crucial to accessing many services, public and private. If these are more challenging on a smartphone, or smartphone only users find them more challenging, then a significant proportion of people are locked out of the full range of benefits the internet can bring.

In the public sector, providing more access to other devices – such as computers in libraries – would help people to make the most of their internet use, although some privacy concerns may remain. However, public and private organisations can also improve digital accessibility by optimising their online offerings for a range of devices, including smartphones.

One Digital is a UK wide partnership which promotes the use of Digital Champions to support people to learn digital skills. For organisations interested in setting up their own digital inclusion project we have developed a free Knowledge Hub of useful information and resources.