2nd Edition April 24th, 2020 Autumn Roesch-Marsh

Digital exclusion and care leavers: It’s time for social work to join this fight

Many social workers will be well aware of the work of the British Association of Social Work in developing The Anti-Poverty Guide for Social Work, which was published in 2019.  Although social workers, activists and academics have been writing about poverty and its impact on the people and communities served by social work since the inception of the profession (Pierson, 2011), this recent work to re-centre poverty as a key concern in social work is important, if perhaps overdue (Boone et al., 2018).  The guide includes some discussion of key theories of poverty, the findings of their extensive consultations with members on the topic of poverty and how it impacts on their work, and ‘proposes practical, skills-based approaches that can assist social workers in their work with people experiencing poverty’ (BASW 2019:5).  It is strange, therefore, that the issue of the digital divide and digital exclusion are not once mentioned in this document.  In this brief piece I will explore the importance of these issue for social work, and particularly for those working with care leavers in the context of the COVID-19 crisis.

There is growing recognition of the significance of the ‘digital divide’ in UK society, with digital exclusion and digital inequality being seen as key factors for mental health and wellbeing.  For these reasons ‘digital participation’ is increasingly seen as way of ‘contributing to a number of major public policy goals’ (White 2016:12).  Although bridging the digital divide was initially about improving access to the internet and different types of technology, authors are increasingly talking about a wider agenda to overcome digital inequality which includes ‘addressing disparities in skills, usage and engagement’ (Humphry 2019: 3).  Digital inequalities are also recognised as ‘complex and multifaceted, structured by pre-existing social, economic and geographic inequalities’ (Humphry 2019: 2). 

Despite this powerful connection between digital inclusion and health and wellbeing, very few social work academics have written about this problem as a social work problem (Steyaert and Gould, 2009).  Steyaert and Gould (2009) argue that this might be because of some inherent pessimism about technology in social work, and, in some places, an assumption that the technological undermines the relational. Those who have turned their attention to the particular needs of those with care experience and online environments have also identified how risk discourses tend to shape practitioner approaches, with a focus on online safety and preventing exploitation predominating and very little discussion about digital rights and digital inclusion (Hammond et al. 2018).  

As a social worker and social work academic I am embarrassed to admit that these issues have not been on my radar either, until fairly recently.  I have been undertaking some research about care leaver mental health and social media, funded through the ESRC eNurture fund.  So far we have spoken to ten young people in detail about their experiences of using social media and its impact on mental health.  We have also conducted three focus groups, two with residential care officers and one with through care workers.  We were hoping to conduct further focus groups with foster carers until COVID-19 interrupted plans.  We still hope to get the views of some foster carers using an online survey.  

This work is ongoing but there are already a number of emerging insights.  The first is around the importance of digital access within the care system and for those transitioning out of the care system.  Workers and young people largely agree that it is far too difficult for young people to access the internet because of poor IT infrastructure, risk averse cultures and cost.  For the young people we spoke to, being able to connect to friends, partners or family virtually through social media and free messaging apps was seen as an essential or core need.  Our personal network mapping with young people has also confirmed findings reported elsewhere, many care leavers live alone and have less contact with family then other young people their age (Hiles et al., 2013), making virtual connections and networks even more important for some care experienced people.  Throughcare workers spoke about their concerns that care leavers often spend money they didn’t have or forgo other needs, such as food, to make sure they have a phone that allows them to make and maintain online or digital connections.  Both residential workers and throughcare workers spoke about young people riding buses late into the night or hanging around MacDonald’s or other venues just to access free WiFi because it was unavailable or restricted during certain hours within residential units or hostels, a finding supported by other research (Anderson and Swanton, 2018).  

These findings were emerging before COVID-19 shut down libraries, restaurants and other free sources of WiFi.  Since lockdown I have spoken to a number of charities in Scotland who support care leavers, I am hearing about the huge challenges some care leavers are facing to connect virtually during this crisis.  Which, more than ever, is the only way to connect with those outside of our households.  First, care leavers may lack the equipment to connect. As one worker I spoke to explained, ‘our young people are living without the basics, so getting and keeping a phone is difficult, they may need to pawn it until they get their next benefit payment.’  Many don’t have computers or struggle to make payments to keep equipment and WiFi access if they are living on their own.  As a manager from an arts based charity explained, ‘we are trying to re-purpose and upcycle any tech we can get our hands on, so that we can give this to the young people we work with.’  

Emerging findings from this study also suggest that young people need support to make the most of digital environments and often value opportunities to connect with social workers and other supportive professionals using digital tools like messaging apps and social media.  As some research on mental health has shown, underlying issues with communicating and managing emotions and difficult situations can impact on the way young people use social media and the impact it may have on their mental health (Best et al., 2014).  In essence, those who face exclusion, exploitation and relationship difficulties offline are more likely to experience similar challenges and risks online.  Emerging findings from this study suggest that social workers and others are most helpful when they are curious and respectful about young people’s use of social media, engaging with conversations that help young people think about the impact of their use of these platforms on their wellbeing.  During this crisis support workers and social workers are increasingly using online platforms like Zoom and WhatsApp groups to keep in regular contact with care leavers and to encourage peer support.  Worries about boundaries seem less important when there is a need to ensure connection with young people who are isolated and whose mental health may be at risk.  

Writing before the crisis, Ryan and Garrett (2018) suggest social work needs be less reactive to technology in-order-to understand the risks and opportunities presented by the professional ‘techno-habitat’.  Ethical principles around respect for persons and promoting safety and dignity have perhaps pushed social workers towards a greater engagement with these issues in the context of the COVID-19 crisis.  This may be a positive thing to emerge from such a dark time for all of us.  Social work as a profession and academic discipline needs to bring issues of digital inequality and digital rights into the wider discussions about poverty and social justice.  As this crisis has highlighted, without technology, internet access and the skills to make use of what the internet has to offer, care leavers are at risk of further exclusion and marginalisation.  

Joining the fight

If these are issues that interest you and you would like to find out more, share your own work on this topic or get involved in work to bridge the digital divide and foster digital justice then there are a few things you might be interested in:

  • I am on Twitter and will continue to raise these issues in this forum.  Make suggestions and join the discussion by following me @DrARoeschMarsh, use the hashtag #digitalinequality to help us connect our experiences and share suggestions. 
  • Coram Voice in England are reporting widely on these issues.  Follow them for updates @CoramVoice. 
  • The Department for Education in England announced on the 19th of April that they will provide computers and 4G routers to disadvantaged children across the country, prioritising care leavers who have an assigned social worker. More detail should emerge soon.
  • In Scotland the charity Scotlandis is working hard to get technology out to those who don’t have it.  To find out more go to:
  • In Scotland the SCVO’s digital team will be launching a call for volunteers over the next few weeks as part of a national coordinated response to get vulnerable, digitally-excluded people online. (More information is here – 
  • The Articulate Trust are developing creative online opportunities for care leavers to keep busy making and sharing artistic outputs.  Check them out at:
  • The Who Cares? Trust in Scotland have been getting technology out to isolated care leavers in Scotland.  Follow them for updates @whocaresscot 

If you are aware of other resources in your area or other initiatives to bridge the digital divide for care leavers or other vulnerable groups please let me know, I will continue to work on these issue and hope to develop some further research related to this topic.

Please get in touch with me if you would like the references for this article.  

This project has been funded by the Nurture Network (eNurture).  eNurture is funded by UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) and their support is gratefully acknowledged (Grant reference: ES/S004467/1). Any views expressed here are those of the project investigators and do not necessarily represent the views of eNurture or UKRI.

Dr Autumn Roesch-Marsh, Senior Lecturer in Social Work, University of Edinburgh

Twitter: @DrARoeschMarsh