Digitalisation is a double-edged sword we live with now and into the future. It is a concern that has been raised as a major issue by 26% of carers in our recent state wide carer survey.

One the one hand, having online access to information and services is a welcome convenience for many. It has made it easier for many carers to manage some of their online requirements associated with their caring role. The opportunity to access Internet sites at any given time from home has certainly saved time and stress for many carers and their families.

On the other hand, the de-personalising nature of online traffic and an increasing expectation to conduct core business and access information online – particularly in the human services and health sectors – can have dire consequences for many people and families in the community. This holds especially true for time poor and stressed primary carers – of any age.

Extensive consultations with carers in our Digital Literacy Program, during our recent carer survey, our work with Carer Advisory Groups and the Carer Support Network SA have identified three main areas where the digitalisation trend has unfair, unethical and excluding consequences for carers:

  1. The ‘Rise of the Machine’ – The impersonal nature of navigating online systems and processes to gain information and support, especially related to human services and health has been raised as an issue by many carers across all age groups.
    Intuitively, one might assume that digital literacy prowess and online success is the domain and preference of a younger generation. However, research and our experience confirm over and over again that all human beings prefer an interaction with a ‘real’ person over a machine. This is especially true when asking for advice regarding personal circumstance that require services, decision making about the future and when discussing emotional content or needing help in a crisis. It is known that person to person interactions in these situations are correlated to achieving faster, better and sustainable outcomes for people seeking support and when acquiring new skills.
    Although central call centre options are available, many of the current online platforms which carers use in their caring role are not able to answer this basic human need for interpersonal social engagement and connection. They are therefore more likely to distract rather than attract the less confident user.
  2. Access and other ‘Bugs’ – Reliable and affordable access to the Internet have been named as key concerns by over a quarter of carers in our recent state-wide “Carers Count” survey. Reliable access to the Internet, especially in regional and remote areas of our state is certainly an ongoing sore point for many, with the current rollout of the NBN (National Broadband Network) said to address reliability into the future. In discussions, affordable access is often assumed to be referring to the costs associated with access service provision via an ISP (Internet Service Provider). Yet, in order to access the Internet, a number of additional and often costly pre-requisite are also required: Carers need to purchase and maintain suitable digital devices (every few years), purchase software programs and their regular updates, Internet security programs and annual renewal updates, gain and update digital literacy skills and of course meet the already mentioned monthly cost of ISP services. With 45% of South Australian carer household incomes at below $40,000 per year, it is no surprise that carers experience digital exclusion due to an inability to afford these costs. With this in mind, it is no surprise that 6% of carers in our recent survey reported that they use no digital devices at all (including mobile phones) and many users of mobile phones with Internet access capacity are using these mobiles for texting and to make calls only.
  3. ‘Socratic Philosophy’ and Digital Literacy – Digital literacy is often assumed to be the domain of young people. It is correct that older carers are more likely to be in the group of carers who may not use any digital devices, or report having restricted levels of digital literacy confidence or knowledge. However carers across all ages can face difficulties negotiating the online world of formal consumer management systems for a variety of reasons.

We have asked carers who are accessing the Internet about their experience:

  • 39% of carers either never, or only sometimes find what they need online,
  • 70% of carers have never used a website specifically designed for carers (i.e.: “www.carergateway.gov.au” or others); and
  • most carers (and other consumers) tell us that they have faced system failures, issues setting up profiles and passwords, finding and downloading resources and were frustrated by confusing processes and broken links while accessing an official online site (ie: NDIS, My Aged Care, My Gov websites, and others).

If systems are user un-friendly they require exceptionally high levels of digital literacy and more importantly: they also require system literacy (with a massive dose of patience) to navigate. When there are technical glitches consumers can at times not differentiate, whether the experience is based on operator error or site issues.

In worst case scenarios, there seem to be an unstated expectation that consumers have levels of digital and system literacy that matches the site-system’s back-of-house process convenience rather than the consumer’s needs and online experience. Not all consumers (especially not carers) have the additional time available (or the higher level IT skills) to manage the ‘fall out’ of site glitches without further frustration and stress. It is often quite difficult to discern what to do when such a site glitch occurs, and whether there are any alternative options to proceed, or whether the tried and tested ‘wait and try again later’-strategy is best.

How can the average online consumer with general digital literacy assume to know how the behind the scenes online systems have been set up in order to identify if, and what potentially could have gone wrong on the other side of the digital screen fence? Maybe the ancient philosopher Socrates predicted the rapid progress of digitalisation when he said: “I am the wisest man alive, for I know one thing, and that is that I know nothing”.

Carers SA urges carers to select candidates in the South Australian State Election 2018, who support unpaid carers and their families. Specifically those candidates who are willing to initiate or support local, state and federal initiatives that ensure stable access to online services and digital literacy training for carers – in particularly for those in the rural and remote regions.

“March is coming”

Marianne Lewis, Carers SA, Senior Policy, Projects and Carer Engagement Officer