New research: Helping digitally excluded people in their 50s and 60s during the pandemic


Citizens Online has been supporting people without access to the internet, or the digital skills to gain the benefits of being online, since 2000. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, we knew there were millions of people struggling to access essential goods, services, job opportunities and financial support online. The pandemic dramatically exacerbated this situation. Together with the Centre for Ageing Better, we wanted to research the impact of the pandemic on internet use among people in their 50s and 60s. Most people in this age bracket use the internet – some are among those who brought it into everyday use for others, and increased their use during the pandemic. However, in 2019, 50 to 69 year-olds accounted for a third of the approximately 3 million people in Great Britain who were not recent internet users or had never used the Internet (ONS).

Research into digital exclusion often focuses on people aged 65 and over, as people in that age group are most likely to be offline. We wanted to understand more about:

  • the experiences of digitally excluded people aged 50-70
  • which organisations had been supporting people, and
  • how delivery of digital support had changed during the pandemic.

Download the research reports

People in need of digital support during the pandemic

Our research emphasised the role income, as well as age, plays as a risk factor in digital exclusion. We commissioned a phone poll with people aged 50-70 with household incomes under £25,000/year. This showed 27% were not using the internet, or had only started using it since the pandemic. This is much higher than the proportion among people in this age bracket as a whole (the ONS reported 8% of 50-69 year olds were offline in 2019). This is just one example of how digital exclusion intersects with other forms of deprivation, marginalisation and social exclusion.

Some respondents who were offline found it difficult to:

  • Connect with family, friends and neighbours (14%);
  • Access health services and information (8%);
  • Pay for goods and services (7%).

In interviews with organisations, we heard about overwhelming levels of need for digital support that the pandemic, restrictions, and economic impact created in some areas:

“I was seriously overwhelmed with phone calls… it’s been quite a nightmare to be honest. It’s just never stopped – from March until Christmas when I turned it off! … I’ve had a break but then we started New Year and it’s just back into it again…”

– John Curtin, North Manchester Community Partnership

Organisations stepping up

During a hugely challenging time, organisations have adapted impressively, with great awareness of the need for digital support, and huge enthusiasm to help.

The amazing efforts of people involved in organisations providing digital support deserve recognition. Around two-thirds of organisations who responded to our research were able to move services online or to telephone, and a similar proportion had phoned their service users to find out their support needs. Device loan schemes were popular, with a third of organisations starting up a scheme during the pandemic

A five minute video introduction to the research features contributions from people working at organisations that have supported people with digital during the pandemic, and you can read more below.

What can organisations do now?

In the report we highlight examples of best practice, and discuss how marketing can be improved. We believe remote support offers continued opportunities to maximise reach, even after restrictions on face-to-face support are eased. We present the following suggestions:

  • Research the needs of service-users, potential service-users and/or local residents. Your organisation may not be reaching people who are digitally excluded through digital marketing, so contact people directly over the phone, use hard-copies and contact other organisations that may be working with similar target audiences (e.g. food banks).
  • Design digital services to meet digital accessibility guidelines and consider inclusion from the start. Diversity and Ability have great guides on accessibility and meaningful digital support.
  • Offer remote support for any digital services your organisation offers. Plan this from the start of designing a new service. Remote digital skills support and device set up support is essential when running a device scheme.
  • Design a referral process to triage digital support for learners. Work with groups that may provide referrals to design this process.
  • Set up device schemes. Engage with (potential) recipients about device preference, as different demographic groups may prefer smartphones, tablets, or laptops. If you are lending, ensure you have an exit plan for recipients. This should include advice on purchasing devices and signposting for low-cost devices or help with costs.
  • Ensure all data is wiped from devices and set up devices again if they are to be re-loaned. This will take time and/or involve payments to a third party, so ensure you build this into budgets and planning. EveryoneConnected provide introductory advice, and may be able to provide devices too.
  • Device schemes could be based on second-hand devices – see the Reboot project’s guide.
  • Provide easy-to-read, hard-copy device guides when providing a device to a service-user. These should cover: the basics of turning on, setting up, changing core settings, and using some of the functionality of devices.

Small, local organisations are best placed to reach digitally excluded populations. Where possible, it’s beneficial to embed digital support in these organisations – even where this is not their specialism or purpose. Where this is not possible, enabling them to use their trusted relationships with service users to triage and signpost digitally excluded people to other organisations in the local area is important.”

– Helen Dobson, Citizens Online, Managing Director

Learn more – catch up on the launch webinar

Read the short or full versions of the report for more on our findings, recommendations, examples of best practice, and case studies featuring people aged 50-70.

Our Research Manager, James Beecher, presented key findings from the research in a webinar held on 8th July 2021. The webinar was hosted by John Kiernan, Innovation and Change Officer at the Centre for Ageing Better, and also features discussion with representatives from two of the organisations featured as Case Studies in the research: Sarah Parkes (project manager Age UK’s well-being team) and Rebecca Smith (Deputy CEO of Social Enterprise Kent, which runs the Ageless Thanet project). You can catch up with a recording of the webinar on YouTube/below. Contact us to find out more