One of my favourite TV shows of the last year was BBC2’s “Back In Time For School”. Over a series of weeks 15 pupils and three teachers re-lived 100 years of education, exploring what school was like from the 1890s to the 1990s. For a bunch of kids used to smartphones and interactive whiteboards, a return to low or no tech education was a shock to the system.

The show prompted me to think about how much digital technology has rapidly changed since I left school in the 1990s. From Google to Twitter and from online shopping to Facetime calls with distant relatives, most of us now take the benefits of the online world for granted.

However, there are still millions of British adults who have never been online. According to a recent report by the Office for National Statistics, four million British adults have never used the internet. At a time when more and more public services are going online – and the best deals can only be found through price comparison websites – this means that many people risk missing out.

But it’s not just access to important products and services that people may be missing out on. Startling new data from the Oxford University Internet Institute and BT has found that some non-internet users claim to be 35% lonelier than those who are online.

At a time when many people link the loneliness epidemic to the rise of social media, this may seem counter-intuitive. Like many people, I worry that real-life interactions have been replaced by “likes” and quick comments. Yet this finding suggests that we need to look beyond our knee-jerk responses to social media – and consider how getting online can be a positive tool for tackling loneliness.

While it is important not to stereotype older people as less digitally savvy, the research also showed that 49% of retired people are still offline. And older people are particularly vulnerable to loneliness and social isolation. Age UK has found that more than a million older people say they go for over a month without speaking to a friend, neighbour or family member. And this is where getting connected – through tools such as Skype and Facetime – can provide an invaluable lifeline, particularly during these dark winter months.  

This is one of the reasons why BT launched our Skills for Tomorrow programme. We want people to be more confident online and to be able to thrive in a digital world. A key partner in this programme is Good Things Foundation who provide courses at centres all over the country and give adults face-to-face support so that they can make the most of getting online.

For some people this will be about managing their bills, going shopping or streaming entertainment. But for many more, it will be about learning how to use a laptop or smartphone to stay connected with their family and friends – a critical way of combatting loneliness.

And this is where we all come in. Over Christmas, you may have been thinking about a parent, grandparent, neighbour or friend who is struggling to stay connected – and who might benefit from a digital crash-course.

So why not warm their life with the gift of connection this winter? All the resources available via BT’s Skills for Tomorrow programme are completely free. And by using them, you could help someone you care about to get better connected.

By Pete Moorey 

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