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Not everyone wants to be digital by default

05 May 2023

People who do not use the internet are being excluded. Churches should find ways to include them, says Bryony Taylor

IN MY work as a priest, I come across a whole section of society who are completely excluded because they do not use — or want to use — the internet.

Last month, one of my neighbours, a lady in her eighties, knocked on my door in a bit of a panic. Her landline had stopped working; the line was down. She has a basic mobile phone, on which she can make calls but not send text messages; but she was at a loss to see how to get her landline back on. She also prefers to pay her bills in cash each month at the Post Office.

After a tortuous process of getting in touch with her supplier, and sending some text messages on her behalf, we managed to get everything sorted out for her. Her landline — her lifeline — is back on.

Reflecting on this, I remembered a conversation with a 90-year-old in one of my churches, who told me his routine each week. He goes into town to go into the bank to withdraw his cash for the week. He likes the social interaction with the women behind the counter, and it gives him something to do each week (he is a widower who lives alone). He told me that, every time he goes into the bank, they try to persuade him to use the ATM, and every time he refuses — it’s one of the few human interactions that he has each week.

I tweeted these stories last month, and they seemed to resonate with thousands of people. Some people on Twitter took a rather negative view, however, saying that these people had “deliberately” excluded themselves; so it was their tough luck if they could not engage with the modern world. This is very uncharitable, but it also reveals how important it is for people to have free choice.

THERE is a whole group of people in our country who are completely excluded by a world that is becoming more and more reliant on automation and an internet connection. Many government services are beginning to be described as “digital by default”. In 2019, more than 3.7 million people aged 55 and over had never used the internet, research published by the Centre for Ageing Better says.

The research drew attention to reasons that people are digitally excluded. A main one is what psychologists call self-efficacy: people feel under-confident in navigating and using the internet. Another is the perceived value and relevance of the internet to their lives; many prefer offline alternatives.

For my neighbour, all the things that have always worked for her in the past are starting to be considered obsolete by wider society — or, perhaps more pointedly, market forces: things such as a landline for keeping in touch with friends and family, cheques, and paying bills in person in cash.

Why should she be forced to use new methods when these systems have always worked in the past and she trusts them? I did a little thought experiment, imagining myself at 80 and being asked to have an implant put in my arm to pay for my shopping at the supermarket. I can imagine myself saying, “No, thank you very much. I’ll stick with my debit card.”

IT IS important that we find ways to help both those who would like to gain confidence in using the internet and also those who would prefer to continue using offline alternatives.

During lockdown, I discovered a way to include those who had only a landline. A priest friend working in Wensleydale, where there was poor internet coverage, was using telephone conferencing to hold services. So, following his advice, I started a “phone church” using WhyPay: a free telephone conferencing system.

During lockdown, we held our midweek communion on the telephone (people dial a number and enter a code to join the call). This became really special for those who attended; after the first time we used it, one lady said, “I feel like I’ve been out.” Since we have returned to in-person services, we have continued with the phone church: I simply place my phone on the altar and put it on speaker, so that those who are unable to attend church in person, for whatever reason, can join in. Each week, one or two usually join in on the phone.

Churches are places where many of the digitally excluded are. Quite a few people learnt how to use new technology during lockdown, to keep in touch with their families; but there are still many who are simply not interested in going online.

We have a duty to ensure that these people are not left behind. Churches are well placed to support people who are digitally excluded. We could run sessions to help people to learn to use a smartphone or tablet — a great opportunity for intergenerational activities. Resources from the Digital Inclusion Network are available to help with this. We can offer support to those who need it in managing and paying bills. We can ensure that our church communication does not exclude those who are not online by sending out paper newsletters and using phone church. What might you try in your parish?

The Revd Bryony Taylor, Rector of Barlborough and Clowne, in Derby diocese, is the author of
Sharing Faith Using Social Media (Grove, 2016).



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