Call for Evidence – Reliance on Digital Technology
The House of Lords COVID-19 Committee is to hold an initial inquiry into how the rapidly increasing reliance on digital technology, accelerated by the pandemic, may have a long-term impact on our social and economic wellbeing. The Committee will initially frame its work around the impact of digitalisation on four key drivers of wellbeing:
- physical health;
- mental health;
- social interaction; and
- quality of working life.
The Committee invites written contributions by 11 December 2020.
This is one of a number of inquiries that the Committee will be conducting to look at the long-term implications of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Why are they undertaking this inquiry?
Prior to the COVID pandemic, many businesses and organisations were already moving towards an increasingly digital approach. However, the pandemic has rapidly accelerated the move to working, communicating and accessing (and providing) services digitally. Almost overnight, a myriad of services and activities switched from ‘real world’ to online in ways that would have been considered near impossible pre-pandemic – from education, to healthcare appointments, attendance at weddings and funerals, even debates and votes in Parliament. A recent survey of businesses suggests that the COVID pandemic has accelerated companies’ digital transformation by an average of five years in the UK. Over the last few months, we have heard from a wide range of individuals and organisations about the positive and negative impacts of these changes, and we now want to explore the implications of this in more detail.
While some aspects of life are likely to return to offline, in-person interactions again once social distancing is no longer required (such as socialising with friends, schooling and cultural activities), in other areas the rapidly increasing reliance on digital technology is likely to be a long-term trend. We recognise that this will affect some people much more than others: some jobs have moved from being based in offices (and based on face-to-face interactions) to being remote and online, but many have not (including, of course, those who do not work in office environments); some people have been shopping, accessing services and socialising online, but others have not been able to or chosen not to.
This inquiry will focus on the impact of the rapidly increasing reliance on digital technology on our social and economic wellbeing and, in particular, on four key drivers of wellbeing:
- physical health;
- mental health;
- social interaction; and
- quality of working life.
Our aim is to explore what steps Government and others can take to maximise the potential positive benefits to wellbeing, and minimise the potential harms, that arise from the increasing use of digital technology.
There is no standard definition of wellbeing, but organisations such as the Office for National Statistics and the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, who seek to measure wellbeing, typically try to assess ‘how we are doing’ as individuals and as nations by looking at people’s reported life satisfaction and emotions (such as happiness, anxiety and loneliness), as well as objective measures such as health outcomes, environment quality, education levels and employment rates.
We are initially focusing on the areas set out below and would welcome comments on one or more of the suggested questions. We may in future, however, consider how other aspects of wellbeing may be affected by an increasing reliance on digital technology and so you should feel free to include comments in your response that sit outside of these areas.
- How will any long-term increase in reliance on digital technology change the way in which health services are accessed? How will this affect the health outcomes of different groups, particularly those who may struggle to access digital services? What health conditions and examinations are amenable to using digital technology and which are less so? What will be the impact on the ability of health professionals to diagnose some health conditions?
- How will any long-term trend towards increased reliance on digital technology in our everyday lives affect our physical health?
- Will it affect the health of different groups – older people, children, people with disabilities, ethnic minorities, home-workers – in different ways?
- What steps can be taken to mitigate any negative consequences for physical activity and fitness? And what opportunities does digital technology offer to increase levels of physical activity and improve physical health?
- What can be done by Government, employers and other organisations to mitigate any negative impact that an increased reliance on digital technology will have on physical health?
- How will any long-term trend towards increased reliance on digital technology affect mental health?
- Will any increasing reliance on digital technology affect the mental health of different groups – older people, children, people with disabilities, ethnic minorities, home-workers – in different ways?
- What steps can be taken to mitigate some of the negative consequences of any increasing reliance on digital technology on mental health?
- What role could digital technology play in increasing awareness, and early treatment of, mental health issues?
- Does an increase in reliance on digital technology provide an opportunity to offer innovative treatments for mental health conditions? Is it also an opportunity to reach those who would usually be unwilling or unable to seek medical advice and support?
- What can be done by Government, employers and other organisations to mitigate any negative impact that an increased reliance on digital technology will have on mental health?
- How will any long-term trend towards increased reliance on digital technology affect relationships and social interactions? How will it affect the social interactions between individuals and how will it affect social cohesion in communities and wider society? What are likely to be the effects on existing relationships, on nascent relationships, and on those seeking to form relationships?
- What steps need to be taken to ensure that this does not lead to a long-term increase in loneliness, isolation and mental health issues?
- Will any increasing reliance on digital technology affect the social interactions of different groups – older people, children, people with disabilities, ethnic minorities, home-workers – in different ways? What are the particular social implications for those who cannot, or choose not to, use the internet?
- What role could digital technology play in increasing opportunities for social interactions? Does an increase in reliance on digital technology provide an opportunity to develop more innovative ways of developing relationships and interacting? Is it also an opportunity to reach out to those who have been left lonely and isolated by more traditional methods of social interaction?
- What can be done by Government, employers and other organisations to mitigate any negative impact that an increased reliance on digital technology will have on social interaction?
- How will any long-term trend towards increased reliance on digital technology affect job opportunities and working conditions? What sectors are likely to see the biggest changes? What impact might these changes have on job satisfaction?
- Will different parts of the UK be affected differently? Does an increased reliance on digital technology offer opportunities to improve economic wellbeing in different parts of the UK?
- Do workers have the digital skills that will be needed as jobs change? What additional training is required to ensure that the workforce is equipped with digital skills?
- In order to maximise the opportunities offered by an increasing reliance on digital technology, is there a case for greater investment and faster roll-out of broadband?
- How will any long-term increase in working from home affect both social and economic wellbeing? How will it affect individuals and how will it affect communities and wider society? What do we know about how working from home can affect our physical and mental health, and what do employers and Government need to do to protect workers?
- Will a reliance on digital interactions and home-working impact on informal interactions and exchanges of information and, in turn, impact on innovation and creativity?
- Who will be disadvantaged by any long-term trend towards home working? How will it affect people without adequate broadband or people who lack an appropriate workspace at home?
- To what extent could home-working enable access to job opportunities for people currently excluded from the workplace (or from certain jobs)?
- If more people continue to work from home in the long-term, what will the impact of reduced commuter numbers be on the environment and on the provision of public transport? How would businesses based in town and city centres be affected? And what consequential impacts might this have on our wellbeing?
Ownership of digital technology
- To what extent is the impact that digital technology has on our wellbeing affected by who owns, and therefore controls access to, that technology?
- Should digital technology companies have a duty to consider their users’ wellbeing? If so, what would that duty consist of and how would it be regulated?
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