Digitalisation: big hurdles for the poor and mentally ill

26.09.2023 People in poverty or with severe mental illness are unable to keep pace with rapid digitalisation. They need easy-to-use devices and targeted advice to avoid being left behind. These are the findings of a study by BFH.

Switzerland is home to over 700,000 people living in poverty and several tens of thousands with severe mental impairments. BFH has conducted a study to investigate how increasing digitalisation affects these vulnerable people. The idea stems from a discussion between two researchers.

For many years, Emanuela Chiapparini, Head of the Institute for Childhood, Youth and Family in the School of Social Work, has been conducting research on poverty and other topics. At the School of Health Professions, Anna Hegedüs runs a funding office of the Lindenhof Foundation, which is involved with research on outpatient psychiatric care. “As we talked, we realised that people experiencing poverty and those with severe mental illness face similar challenges in the context of digitalisation,” recalls Emanuela Chiapparini.

Involving those affected

The two researchers wanted to know more. A joint study was launched to find out what obstacles are faced by people living in poverty and those with severe mental impairments in their everyday lives due to digitalisation, and how these obstacles can be overcome. The duo, along with their colleagues Daniela Willener and Kristina Domonell, began by evaluating 43 studies that revolve around basic digital skills and the use of digital tools by socially disadvantaged people.

As we talked, we realised that people experiencing poverty and those with severe mental illness face similar challenges in the context of digitalisation.

Emanuela Chiapparini
Emanuela Chiapparini

In the second phase, they specifically incorporated the perspectives of both those affected and experts in the field. Here, the four researchers held discussion sessions to record the experiences of the two groups with the use of digital tools and mutual questions. To the delight of the authors of the study, all seven of the affected persons spontaneously agreed to be interviewed, as Emanuela Chiapparini emphasises. “This gave us a direct insight into the difficulties these people face in their daily lives.”

Digital is not everything

The results of the study are sobering: “Those affected can’t manage to operate a computer or smartphone when they are unwell,” Emanuela Chiapparini explains. Moreover, many of them do not have regular access to the internet and often lack the knowledge to use digital devices effectively.

However, there was an additional reason why they avoided digital use. Emanuela Chiapparini notes that people affected by poverty and those with severe mental illness prefer personal contact as a way of escaping their social isolation, at least temporarily: “They prefer to buy a train ticket at the counter instead of via a smartphone app.” Which in turn is not conducive to strengthening their digital skills.

Those affected can’t manage to operate a computer or smartphone when they are unwell.

Emanuela Chiapparini
Emanuela Chiapparini

Another problem is that those affected often do not receive the support they need when using digital devices. “Experts don’t have the time to show clients how to find information on their smartphones or access their bank accounts,” Emanuela Chiapparini explains. Or the experts may lack the relevant skills.

Access and education

According to the authors of the study, three things are needed to remove the obstacles that these people face in their daily dealings with digitalisation:

  • An easily accessible, affordable infrastructure (internet access and devices) as well as affordable educational offers for the use of digital tools,
  • ‘Time slots’ for professionals such as psychotherapists or social counsellors to coach their clients in the use of digital devices and to show them how online content can benefit them,
  • Involvement of peers in teaching digital skills; with expertise gained from practical experience, they generally have the best access to those affected.

The study leaders also appeal to industry: when developing devices or applications, companies should take into account the experiences of those affected and cater to their needs. Having easy-to-use devices would remove a major obstacle in the daily lives of these vulnerable people.

Dovetailing of offers

In summary, Emanuela Chiapparini pleads for the targeted dovetailing of personal and digital services for those affected. “Apps are not the solution to every problem.” By nurturing their digital know-how and providing personal guidance, these people are supported more effectively and prevented from being left behind by society.

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