Kyle Scott is a Policy Officer at Citizens Advice Scotland
This column was first published in the Herald on 3 January 2022.
While we all know how much we rely on internet access, it can sometimes be a wee bit daunting when you work out how much time you actually spend using the internet. I’m not trying to make you feel guilty about screen time or anything, but rather change your perspective of this metric. Think about it like this; what do you use the internet for that you didn’t 20 years ago?
Let’s start with the basics, you might use online banking through a smartphone, or do the bulk of your shopping online and, for some reason, you still might be going to the odd pub quiz with friends or family over Zoom. Regardless of what you are using it for, it’s clear that having access to an internet connection helps to carry out many of your day-to-day activities.
When we look at activities that are a bit more essential, the need for internet access is obvious. The Covid-19 pandemic has just about normalised remote working for most desk-based jobs, we use video calling applications for our GP appointments and to keep in touch with friends and family.
So when you see stories like "People in the UK spent an average of 3 hours and 47 minutes a day on smartphones, tablets and computers" it’s not actually that shocking, is it? And if your average screen time is higher than this, again it’s not necessarily something to be concerned about. Access to the internet has been pivotal to both our individual resilience and our resilience as a society throughout the Covid-19 pandemic. If we aren’t using it to socialise, we are using it for work, if we aren’t working then we are using it to find employment and I think we have all been using it for when we need to wind down and avoid burn out.
Given that internet access is so pivotal to our lives, think about how difficult it would be if you struggled to afford it. Research from YouGov conducted on behalf of CAS shows that has been the case for 15% of Scottish consumers. We found that 32 % of people ran out of money before pay day in the last year. Of those people, 26 % had to go without internet access as a result. Based on Scotland’s population estimates this works out to 369,200 people.
With our day-to-day activities increasingly dependent on access to the internet, it is essential that internet access, whether through mobile or broadband connections, is affordable.
One way of ensuring affordable access is Social Tariffs; targeted contract options which allow consumers on low incomes to maintain affordable and consistent internet access. Currently, most social tariffs offered by telecoms providers are only available to those receiving social security benefits. While CAS support the use of Social Tariffs, we want to see wider eligibility.
Offering social tariffs to consumers who are vulnerable and/or on low incomes would ensure that they have consistently affordable internet access. At a time when household incomes are under serious pressure, we don’t believe that access to such an essential service only be for those who can afford it.