Digitalisation – beneficial development or social exclusion?
What opportunities and risks does digitalisation bring for people with mental illness and those affected by poverty? What is the role of social work in this process?
Digitalisation and the accompanying social changes bring with them effects on many areas of everyday life. The advantages and disadvantages of this change have different effects at the individual level. There is a growing gap between those who benefit from digitalisation and vulnerable groups who are disadvantaged by digitalisation.
Therefore, the cooperative study “ProDigitAll” of the Department of Social Work and Health of the Bern University of Applied Sciences investigated which opportunities and hurdles digitalisation brings for people with mental illness or affected by poverty. A systematic literature search was used to identify barriers to the use and retrieval of information for the aforementioned groups and to systematically review the state of research. In a further step, the above-mentioned results were validated and supplemented in a participatory workshop with people affected and professionals from social work and psychiatric care. The results were used to outline further support options for those affected (Hegedüs et. al., 2023).
Individual positive aspects of digitalisation
Positive aspects can be seen in the fact that digital media can be used regardless of location, which is advantageous, for example, in the case of limited budgets for mobility. In addition, there are numerous apps, especially in the Anglo-American context, with the aim of promoting the self-management of people with mental illness. Their evaluations show a motivating effect on the commitment to the own health of the persons concerned.
In addition to the positive aspects, there are multi-layered challenges that can be located on the system, interaction and individual levels based on the digital health literacy model (Hegedüs et. al. 2023; Norgaard, et. al., 2015). A basic prerequisite for using the internet is that suitable technical devices are available and maintained ( system category). Especially people affected by poverty are often not able to ensure the maintenance of the devices due to a lack of financial resources, as can be seen from the literature and the voices of those affected.
The category of interaction points to various areas that influence the usage behaviour of the persons concerned. Groups of people with a low level of education use the internet significantly less frequently and for a shorter period of time than people with a higher level of education. It is therefore only possible for them to a limited extent to develop and train skills or to keep up with the rapid digital developments (Iske & Kutscher, 2020). The influence of low income on media skills is confirmed by the people concerned. Attending a computer course is associated with high costs, which not everyone can afford.
Motivation as a decisive factor
On the individual level, it is shown that the personal psychological condition as well as motivation are decisive influencing factors in the use of digital media. It depends on the mental condition (e.g. concentration disorder) whether, for example, available apps are used. The rapid digital development requires a high level of receptivity and rapid learning processes, which challenges affected persons. They confirm that they only use digital media to a limited extent in everyday life, for example, due to limited concentration. The motivation to use digital media depends on the two challenge categories of the system and the interaction described above. In order to maintain motivation, the use of digital media must bring added value for the persons concerned. Support in the event of technical difficulties is also an important factor in terms of motivation, often drawing on the social environment. If this is not available, the aforementioned challenges and exclusion processes accumulate. Based on the literature (Saeed & Masters, 2021) and the voices of the persons concerned, social exchange opportunities are desired both offline and online: “I prefer to go to the counter, for example at the bank or the SBB. Direct contact is important to me”.
Role of social work – peer approach
In order for the potentials of digitalisation to be used, access to it must be actively accompanied and designed inclusively. The findings show that social work professionals have a central role to play in this. They can facilitate access to digital media in direct contact with those affected and reduce inhibition thresholds. In the context of social work, various challenges are emerging, which lie at the individual but also at the socio-political level. In addition to the necessary training of social workers, the time factor and the high case load represent an obstacle to accompanying affected persons. Appropriate resources and basic knowledge must be created, which requires, among other things, a change at the socio-political level. The peer approach is another effective way to support affected persons. This makes it possible to promote digital access for people affected by poverty through people with the same background of experience. This has the advantage that the support could be very low-threshold and would be particularly accepted by the people concerned. The results show that the aforementioned groups of people are excluded and that further support in the use of digital media is necessary.
- Hegedüs, A., Domonell, K., Willener, D. & Chiapparini, E. (2023). Digitalisation. Hurdles and opportunities for vulnerable groups (ProDigitAll). Bern University of Applied Sciences.
- Iske, Stefan; Kutscher, Nadia (2020): Digital inequality in the context of social work. In: Nadia Kutscher, Thomas Ley, Udo Seelmeyer, Friederike Siller, Angela Tillmann and Isabel Zorn (eds.): Handbuch Soziale Arbeit und Digitalisierung. With the collaboration of Stefan Iske and Nadia Kutscher. Weinheim: Beltz; Beltz Juventa, pp. 115-128.
- Norgaard, Ole; Furstrand, Dorthe; Klokker, Louise; Karnoe, Astrid; Batterham, Roy; Kayser, Lars; Osborne, Richard (2015): The e-health literacy framework: A conceptual framework for characterizing e-health users and their interaction with e-health systems. In: Knowledge Management & E-Learning: An International Journal, pp. 522-540. DOI: 10.34105/j.kmel.2015.07.035.
- Saeed, S. A. & Masters, R. M. (2021). Disparities in Health Care and the Digital Divide. Current psychiatry reports, 23(9), 61.