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A Guide to Taking Your First Steps Online

Are you self-isolating? Or avoiding social contact? Take your first steps online!

Efforts to contain and limit the new Coronavirus (now commonly known as CoVID-19) are disrupting every aspect of our lives. The UK government’s new guidance on “social distancing”, and self-isolation for vulnerable people, leads many of us to lean on digital solutions and services to work from home, to contact family and keep up-to-date with latest health information. In particular, due to high demand, the national 111 NHS advice service is requesting people use an online symptom checker rather than calling the service.

Many of us will easily adjust to working and socialising through the internet… but not everyone.

In recent years, in-person encounters have been being replaced by digital services at an increasing rate. Whole sectors have been fast-tracking digital practices because that seems like the logical thing to do, and government has been making services ‘Digital by default’. But not everyone is online, and of those who are, many lack access to up-to-date devices, decent connectivity, or lack the skills or confidence to achieve what they want to (or need to) online.

Digital Champion Josie with Sylvie, a resident of a home for older people.
Digital Champion Josie with Sylvie, a resident of a home for older people.

1 in 5 adults do not have the basic digital skills to cope with this drastic change. That’s close to 12 million people in the UK being at risk of being left even further behind by the impact of this pandemic. The majority of these (80%) are older people who are being asked to distance themselves from social contact and at higher risk of self-isolation. They will need help on so many levels, and – now more than ever – it’s essential that we raise awareness of how helping people with their digital skills can enable those in isolation to remain both independent and connected, as well as giving them (and all the great volunteers supporting them) the basic tools to get more confident with digital. This article will walk you through some key resources for essential digital skills. Many of the guides we refer to are produced by Digital Unite, one of our One Digital partners:

Step 1: Are you connected to the internet? What about mobile data?

It’s possible to connect to the internet via either fixed internet (e.g. wifi) or mobile internet (e.g. 4G) through a range of devices. Make sure that your device (mobile phone, laptop, tablet) is connected to your fixed internet. For instance, here’s a useful guide to help you connect to wifi.

If you have a phone, you might also have access to 4G which is “superfast mobile broadband”. Make sure to check your data allowance (often based on ‘data bundles’) before using mobile internet on the move.

If you haven’t got internet connection or mobile data, there are cheaper solutions available like BT Basic and grant schemes available for older people.

A final option is to check for free wifi in public spaces (preferably outdoor if you’re keeping your distance from people). For instance, Brighton & Hove has free outdoor wi-fi as well as on its buses.

Step 2: Is your laptop secure? Do you have a screen lock on your phone? 

The web is a great resource but it’s important to be aware of basic safety measures. Follow these step-by-step instructions to help you stay safe online.  And make sure that your phone or tablet is secure – take a look at these top 10 tips!


Step 3: Do more online!

  • Stay in touch with family and friends: of course you can make phone calls but being able to see who you are talking to really does make communicating easier. You can use video calling to keep in touch with friends and family all over the world. Many companies run meetings and job interviews by video calling. So, how do you get started?
    • Make sure you have a webcam: most modern phones, tablets and laptops will have a built-in camera that allows you to see friends and family via your computer. If you need to set up a webcam on your computer, follow Digital Unite’s “How to set up a Webcam” guide.
    • FaceTime is an Apple service that also allows you to make video and audio calls over your wifi or mobile phone network for free, saving you money on phone calls if you are calling from one Apple device to another. Find out how to FaceTime.
    • Skype: Skype is another application that enables people to speak to each other for free over the internet, which works on and between a variety of different devices. It’s also possible to use Skype to make cheap calls to a landline or mobile telephone. This step-by-step guide will have you up and running on Skype in no time.
    • Want a simple step-by-step guide for someone unfamiliar with digital technology? Try Learn My Way’s course to help people “learn about how you can see people when chatting to them on the internet”
Giorgio got help from a Digital Champion to help him stay in touch with his family
Giorgio got support from a Digital Champion to help him stay in touch with his family

Shop: if you’re avoiding social contact, it’s more than likely that you’ll need to reduce running shopping errands. Don’t worry, you can buy everything online nowadays and save some money too! Here’s Digital Unite’s guide to Online Shopping.

Step 4: Online connection is different to connectivity

There is a risk that people will feel isolated – or lonely – because of the measures to deal with the coronavirus pandemic, and we acknowledge that the internet is not the remedy to loneliness we would love it to be. However, here are some tips to maintain human connection through digital means:

For more on this topic see AbilityNet’s article: “Ten ways tech helps you stay connected”.

Other things to consider:

As AgeUK say, “Email and online shopping can make our lives a lot easier, but they also create new opportunities for fraud. Online scams are becoming increasingly common and sophisticated, so it’s good to know how to keep yourself safe.” Find out more via their page on internet security.

AbilityNet have a team of specialists and give detailed information on a wide range of assistive technology, services and related organisations to support disabled people. They have a set of free to download factsheets that “provide advice and information about how computers and other digital technologies can help people with a range of conditions and impairments”. They also have some great accessibility tips on their My Computer My Way page.

If you’re in a position to help out a family member, friend or neighbour, make sure to also use the resources on the Digital Champions Network with resources to help older people get online, understanding accessibility needs and accessing government services. There’s never been a more essential time to engage with these issues and put your own digital skills to good use!


This blog was authored by Citizen Online and published here, on March 17 2020

Citizens Online is a UK charity committed to researching, addressing and promoting the issues of digital inclusion. In partnership with a wide range of collaborators, Citizens Online has specialised in tackling digital exclusion and improving people’s essential digital skills since 2000.