Early data shows how digital poverty increased the pain of the 2020 lockdown for disadvantaged children.
Early data and research paint a troubling picture of how disadvantaged children were affected during the initial lockdown and how digital poverty in Ireland needs to be tackled with urgency.
The pandemic lockdown of 2020 in Ireland will be studied for generations to come. The first lockdown was a national effort to ‘flatten the curve’ and protect the most vulnerable in society from a lethal virus. It was also the greatest social experiment in Irish history.
The lockdown restrictions affected every person in Ireland. However, early research by various public and private bodies suggests that already vulnerable groups were left even more exposed.
In this article, using data, article links and research available on The Data Times*, we examine how the lockdown affected children in Ireland; particularly children who had little or no access to digital tools and proper connectivity.
The great experiment
On March 27, 2020, the Republic of Ireland went into lockdown. People were asked to stay at home. All non-essential journeys were banned for two weeks. The only exceptions were for travelling to essential work, to shop for food or household goods, for healthcare appointments, and for vital family reasons. People were confined to within a two-kilometre radius of their homes. Businesses, schools, churches, gyms, pubs and restaurants were shuttered. Public gatherings of all kinds were banned. The economy ground to a silent yet overwhelming halt.
What happened next will be studied by generations of policymakers, academics, writers, economists and historians to come. The impacts the lockdown had on people in Ireland varied enormously, however, and this is the most striking thing about the initial data.
The early research emerging from this exceptional period suggests that already vulnerable people in our society suffered the most. Evidence has also emerged that there is a profound ‘digital divide’ in Ireland. There are those who have access to digital tools and broadband and then there are those who don’t – and their opportunities in life differ dramatically.
Many people struggle
The National Adult Literacy Agency (NALA) recently examined digital inequalities in Ireland. What NALA found was that when the lockdown was introduced workers with lower educational achievements were the worst affected by the restraints. They also endured the highest numbers of job lay-offs. Likewise, those with low literacy, without access to technology or digital tools had the most difficulty supporting their children’s education.
55% of the adult community in the Republic of Ireland has low digital skills, says NALA. This means people struggle to read online, do simple maths or search and understand information.
“If there’s one thing we learnt during the pandemic, it’s that many people struggle with understanding and accessing information. For those with low literacy or digital skills, it is especially difficult,” says Dr Inez Bailey, NALA CEO.
“While some families were able to support their kids learning online, many parents struggled with understanding information from schools. Third-level institutions moved quickly to deliver their courses virtually but often those attending adult literacy education classes didn’t have access to technology.
“That’s why now more than ever we need to work together to improve literacy, numeracy and digital skills in Ireland, to create a more equal and inclusive society,” says Bailey.
Very early data
The majority of Irish citizens were united in the initial response to the pandemic. People entered the lockdown with a sense of shared responsibility – we had to flatten the curve.
The first month of lockdown was an anxious time. Initial reports from frontline services suggested that ‘COVID-anxiety’ was having a tangible impact. For example, half of the admissions to a psychiatric hospital in Dublin in April related to COVID-anxiety and the lockdown constraints. St John of God Hospital says it saw a ‘dramatic increase’ in admissions from new and existing patients who were struggling with mood and anxiety disorders, addictions and issues relating to social isolation.
An early lockdown survey of 1,000 people in Ireland, by researchers in Maynooth University and Trinity College Dublin, showed people were genuinely concerned.
The survey results were published just two days after full restrictions were imposed. Mental health problems were common. 41% of people reported feeling lonely, 23% reported clinically meaningful levels of depression, 20% reported clinically meaningful levels of anxiety, and 18% reported clinically meaningful levels of post-traumatic stress.
“We also found that younger people, those who tend to think in catastrophic ways, those who fear being infected by COVID-19, are at a higher risk of mental health problems,” stated Dr Philip Hyland of Maynooth University.
No supports for vulnerable children
The emerging data also points out just how damaging any level of poverty can be. Vulnerable and at-risk children suffered the most during the lockdown, suggests Barnardos. Children’s usual support networks such as teachers or other trusted adults disappeared overnight. Children suddenly had no one to reach out to and ask for help.
“While all children have been impacted [by the lockdown], children from socially and economically disadvantaged backgrounds suffered greater in terms of schooling,” says Suzanne Connolly, CEO of Barnardos. “For these children, school is a source of security and routine. Many would have limited homeschooling support and a lack of resources such as laptops to participate from home. Some young people who were preparing for their exams were particularly impacted by digital poverty, and would not have had the laptops or internet connections to help them with their studies.”
Other lockdown traumas
Outside of school and all the support it brings, vulnerable children experienced other lockdown traumas. “Acrimonious separation issues were exacerbated with children exposed to traumatic scenes in the home and left living in pressurised, tense environments,” says Connolly.
“Another area for concern is the increase in domestic violence during this period. The virus has been a helpful tool for the perpetrators of domestic violence who were allowed to exert further control over their families and children.”
Women’s Aid said it received over 4,000 calls during the height of the lockdown (late March to late May). Calls to the helpline were up 39% on the same period last year with women disclosing high levels of emotional, physical, sexual and financial abuse from their partners. The home was not a safe place for thousands of women and children affected by domestic abuse.
The Rape Crisis Network Ireland (RCNI) revealed that its services saw a 98% increase in contacts during COVID-19 lockdown. “From our conversations with counsellors and managers in RCCs we believe that this is in a large part due to the lockdown measures triggering past trauma,” says Dr Clíona Saidléar, RCNI executive director.
Data also shows that 781 children and young people between 12 and 23 engaged with RCNI services. “We are so glad that children and young people who needed rape crisis support reached out and found us. We do remain concerned for children during this period and know that there are many who have not been able to ask for support and help,” said Saidléar.
Home can be a dangerous place
Childline, Ireland’s 24-hour listening service for children, says it answered 72,701 calls, online queries and texts from children and young people during the period of peak COVID-19 restrictions.
Between the week ending March 15, the week the schools closed, and the week ending June 28, the day before lockdown eased, children turned to Childline to talk about many issues including domestic violence, abuse, suicide ideation, self-harm, mental health difficulties, and anxieties related to COVID-19.
“For [many children] the lockdown was a frightening time in which they were at home with their tormentor 24-hours-a-day. The lockdown showed us that abuse, mental health difficulties and other issues do not stop in a pandemic. In many cases, they are experienced more acutely,” said John Church, CEO of the ISPCC in a statement.
Household drinking also became more common. Early data shows a surge of €6 million more in daily take-home alcohol sales at the start of the lockdown. According to Nielsen data, the four weeks from April 6 to May 3 saw take-home alcohol sales reach €184.5 million – the highest spend in three years of data. A total of €342.5 million was spent on alcohol during the lockdown, over the full eight weeks of COVID-19 restrictions. From March 9 to May 3, at-home alcohol consumption rose by 43% or €102 million more than the same period last year.
The digital divide
As mentioned, the lockdown increased educational disadvantages. Children who didn’t have access to laptops or decent broadband were left out in the cold.
Studyclix, for example, released the results of a survey of 1,500 second-level teachers on April 30. Digital poverty is evident for both teachers and students. Poor and unreliable internet access was a barrier to teaching for 35% of the teachers surveyed.
More than half (53%) of teachers surveyed in Mayo, 50% in Wexford and 48% in Cavan said that poor internet connections affected their ability to teach. 78% of respondents said there was a lack of student engagement during the coronavirus pandemic, with many students “not responding to” or engaging with teachers. 47% of teachers said lack of engagement was caused by having no access to a laptop, tablet or another device. A third of teachers who took the survey said they lacked “the technical know-how” to teach online.
The link between poverty and digital exclusion is clear. If you are poor, you have less chance of benefiting from the power of the digital world. For example, the University of Cambridge, which has been researching digital exclusion for years, says the lockdown made the impacts of digital exclusion “worse for the millions of people affected, and the poorest were hit the hardest”.
The impossible task of homeschooling
For many parents, faced with uncertain job prospects, and forced to work from home, the added task of homeschooling their children became a ruthless burden. The wave two results from NUI Galway’s Corona Citizens’ Science Project suggested that parents were finding homeschooling especially challenging.
Over 6,000 parents with primary school children were surveyed. 54% had problems motivating their children. 18% said there was no clarity around what was expected from homeschooling. 17% of the parents of school children of any age said resources, particularly access to digital tools, the internet and books, were an obstacle.
Is the future even more polarised?
As we emerge moderately from lockdown restrictions, with the virus still overwhelming global populations, the data shows that people in Ireland are increasingly polarised. The data clearly indicates that poverty and digital inequalities exacerbate multiple problems facing vulnerable children.
Hundreds of thousands of parents have lost their jobs. Hundreds of thousands of children face an uncertain future. We know that what happens to parents will closely affect children.
Are we going to be left with an even more divided society where some will be forced to endure long-term poverty and pain while others will enjoy the ‘privilege of recovery’?
Policymakers in Ireland need to look at the digital divide in Ireland. They need to look at digital literacy in adults and children. A lack of digital literacy in adults leads to the spread of ‘fake news’, hate speech and other forms of misinformation and conspiracy theories. For children, digital poverty is devastating.
Policymakers also need to ask themselves which industries and businesses will survive this crisis. Which groups of Irish people will get through it with relatively little long-term economic damage, and how equitable will the ‘recovery’ be. The initial data emerging from this ‘great experiment’ is clear in what it is telling us. If Ireland is to emerge from the lockdown and thrive in the same spirit the Irish people went into it then we, as a society, need to tackle inequalities, disrupt poverty and heal the digital divide.
*The Data Times
This article was written using information, data sets, research and article links hosted on The Data Times, a new platform for journalists and researchers to share and collaborate on open data. The Data Times is developed by Flax & Teal, an open-source development company in Belfast. The Data Times is currently in the prototype stage. You can read more here.
The situation in Northern Ireland
Niamh Campbell, writing for Sync NI, examines how the pandemic is becoming a serious mental health problem, with particular focus on vulnerable children and families in Northern Ireland, who tend to be from lower socio-economic backgrounds.
You can read more on how the pandemic has affected children across Northern Ireland here.