Researching the digital lives of teenagers brings with it great highs and lows. The highs are realising that new doors are opening for young people as they expand their horizons beyond their everyday worlds. The lows are different. Our research revealed young people in deprived areas are struggling to get online and stay connected. Some schools have poorly designed and funded IT systems and there are colleges that all but choke off digital engagement.
Often, school is the only place where young people can access the internet freely, especially now many libraries have closed.
We see parents in deprived areas paying a small fortune for subscriptions offering a few miserly kilobytes of decrepit and creaking copper broadband. This is happening not only in rural areas such as East Cambridgeshire, Cumbria, or the Orkneys but in urban internet cold spots such as parts of Hull, and the London boroughs of Southwark, Tower Hamlets and Westminster.
In contrast, parents in more affluent areas are, in some cases, paying the same amount for high-speed fibre access.
But however much you pay, your child’s internet access could still be compromised because of where they live, and whether there are major businesses in the local area prepared to demand better infrastructure.
This is something Labour has promised to fix. By offering universal free high-speed broadband, they are in a position to profoundly change society, possibly even more than they realise.
This manifesto commitment goes well beyond flinging an election freebie at voters largely able to pay for subscriptions themselves. This is because speed and access are not the only problems. When young people do access the internet, which is most likely to be through a mobile phone, they see different things: those in deprived areas are bombarded with burger and betting advertisements, while young people in more affluent areas are shown advertisements for university open days and sports equipment.
In the US, students on the same course, in the same college, but living in different areas, can be charged different amounts for the same course book by online retailers. We could be heading in the same direction in the UK. The poorer the system thinks you are, the more it will charge you.
How does it know to do that? Sneaky algorithms assess how far you live from a telephone exchange or mobile phone mast, whether you are accessing the internet by phone, copper or fibre broadband, the geolocation of your IP address, and even the monetary value and age of the device you are using. To be a long way from an ageing telephone exchange, using an old device, means you are likely to be routinely ripped off. That is the reality facing many young people in deprived areas today.
The way to change this grubby commercial practice is to standardise provision. All our other utilities are what is known as “high reliability”, with electricity, gas and water coming out of pipes at the same rate and to the same standards regardless of how much you pay. The internet, the newest of the utilities, should provide the same degree of consistency and availability as everything else.
Whether it should be completely free for everyone is another debate. We are lacking information about how Labour is planning to ensure investment levels are kept up over time. But standardising the highest quality provision for all? That is a beautifully subversive way of us telling the globalised tech robber barons that we are going to run our society, thank you very much, and not them. Young people and their education can only do well out of this.
Sandra Leaton Gray is associate professor of education at UCL and director of the My Life Online research project. She is co-author of Invisibly Blighted: The digital erosion of childhood
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