WaveLength – Written evidence (INQ0089)
Information about WaveLength
1. WaveLength is the UK’s oldest loneliness and technology charity, gifting radios, televisions, and tablet computers to individuals and organisations to help fight loneliness for people on low-incomes. Initially set up in 1939 in partnership with the BBC and the Rotary Club, WaveLength’s founders recognised how a simple radio could provide a window to the world for housebound individuals.
2. Since 2013 WaveLength has helped over 29,000 people with gifts of technology. The majority of people WaveLength helps suffer from poor physical and mental health, with over 20% of the charity’s work supporting those over the age of 55. WaveLength gives technology to people who have been referred to the charity, as well as to organisations who support older people who are lonely throughout the country. Our model of giving allows groups to use the technology in most effective ways to support their clients.
3. Old age cuts across many of the organisations that WaveLength helps, including homeless hostels, refuges, day-care centres, and hospital wards. Our work alleviates loneliness for lonely people of all ages across the UK. While this inquiry focuses upon older people, giving children and adults the tools and skills to cope with loneliness will play an important role over the span of an individual’s life. Investment in technological-driven solutions to tackling loneliness should be considered across the life course to have the most effective impact in reducing loneliness levels.
4. Our submission of written evidence is based on our research with the University of York, carried out by Dr Annie Irvine and Professor Martin Webber at the Social Policy Research Unit, as well as feedback collected from our beneficiaries, and key reports on loneliness and digital inclusion.
Question 7: How can technology be used to improve mental health and reduce loneliness for older people?
5. Our latest quantitative research released in 2019 showed that people who received technology from WaveLength felt less lonely, happier, and rated their health more positively. Beneficiaries saw a statistically significant reduction in their emotional and social loneliness. (Emotional loneliness is when someone misses the companionship of a specific person. Social loneliness is when someone does not have a wider social network.) The research also showed that loneliness did not discriminate based on age, sex, or region. The Theory of Change illustrates how media technology is used to connect and reconnect people to society, increase their access to social and media content. These connections lead to familiarity, normality, happiness and entertainment, in turn bringing people together, fostering greater feelings of inclusion, reduced social isolation and loneliness.
6. The qualitative research released in 2016, found that media technology helps to reduce loneliness in three ways by:
- Providing comfort and companionship, alleviating loneliness and the negative emotions that can bring
- Reducing social isolation, bringing people into contact with others and helping them build social connections
- Granting access to information and inspiration, from advice on emotional wellbeing and mental health to details of social opportunities or job vacancies.
Participants also reported that technology lifted low moods and increased their motivation.
7. Organisations use the technology we give to run activities which bring older people together in meaningful ways. Whether it is historic memory tours, musical bingo, singing for the brain, karaoke, or watching the World Cup, televisions and tablet computers have supported and extended the offerings of day-care centres for older groups. One of the day-care community charities WaveLength supports wrote how technology:
“gives people confidence and it breaks the barriers down of communication. So someone from a different community has come and they haven’t broken the ice with that person, so this provides them with a great opportunity.”
8. Pudsey Live at Home works to reduce isolation and promote independence for those aged 60+ in the Pudsey area, by encouraging older people to live independently in their own homes for as long as possible with the best quality of life. They use media technology from WaveLength to connect the group to the world by using photographs and YouTube to bring back memories of old music, television, or sport, alongside engaging activities such as puzzles, jigsaws, and colouring. The range of activities means there is something for everyone of all abilities, stimulating further social inclusion. Such initiatives rely on the provision of appropriate training, time, and innovation into the organisation’s existing work, alongside a reliable Internet connection.
9. Music Mirrors based in Norwich, has used tablet computers to link sounds and music to life stories, so that older people have a voice as their memory declines. By hearing a simple snatch of music, beneficiaries are opened up to a whole world of memories and feelings and makes them think of people, places, words and times long forgotten. Words and music are easily portable to follow someone as they move from one care setting to another, helping them connect with unfamiliar carers who might have little information about them.
10. Older people use technology from WaveLength to access a range of media content. One community organisation used the communal television to display informative health videos on keeping warm in the winter, alongside advice relating to diabetes, blood pressure, heart disease. Having a radio and television allowed older people to keep up-to-date with news, events, and popular culture, which played an important role in their social integration. A radio was a particularly useful entry point, especially for vulnerable older people, as this stimulated conversation and led to further practical and social support. Radios are easy-to-use and require no ongoing fee, which is critical for many of the older people on low incomes which WaveLength supports. Today, people over the age of 55+ listen to the radio between 24 and 25 hours per week. Regularly listening to the radio also helped older people to create structure in their days, marking and passing the time.
11. Tablet computers helped older people to stay in touch with friends and family, via video calls, e-mails, and social media, which is increasingly pertinent in dispersed societies. Technology helps bring family and friends into an older person’s home at a time which is convenient for them, in turn reducing loneliness levels. WaveLength would never advocate that technology should replace human contact, but it provides support whenever someone needs it during the day or night.
Question 8: What are the barriers to the development and implementation of these various technologies (considered in questions 5-7)?
● What is needed to help overcome these barriers?
● To what extent do socio-economic factors affect access to, and acceptance of, scientific advice and use of technology by older people and those who care for them?
12. More funding is needed in everyday technology, which has been proven to have a tangible impact on reducing loneliness levels. Investment tends to gravitate towards the development of often unproven, new technological solutions to reduce loneliness. Simple, low-cost, everyday pieces of technology such as radios, televisions, and tablet computers are somewhat neglected for their effectiveness in reducing loneliness levels. The creation of an everyday technology fund could be set up in order to allow older people who are on the poverty line to benefit from simple technology. As research by the Campaign to End Loneliness has shown, for every £1 invested in reducing loneliness levels, the country saves £3. The investment in everyday pieces of technology could have a large social impact, with relatively small investment.
13. The extension of broadband to hard-to-reach groups would also allow for more meaningful connections. Many older people do not have access to broadband. The Lloyds Bank UK Consumer Digital Index showed that over 80% of the 4.1 million UK adults who had not used the Internet in the last 3 months were aged 50+. Indeed, some older people choose not to be online and this choice should be respected. Others however would benefit from being connected, but cannot afford to do so. A survey of WaveLength beneficiaries in 2011 found that only 4% had access to the Internet. The introduction of a means-tested broadband provision would ensure those of any age living in poverty could be connected, even if only at a minimum standard. 40% of respondents to the ONS’s survey said that being online helped them to feel less alone, with the benefits especially pronounced for those with a disability.
14. There needs to be a change in the association between technology and loneliness. In public discourse and media commentary, technology can be equated with specific activities or platforms, such as social media. Technology can encompass a range of devices, from the simple radio to more advanced AI robots. A more nuanced understanding of technology is required to appreciate the positive role it can play in reducing loneliness levels for our older populations. As one of our beneficiaries said: “Some people say that computers isolate you. It’s the opposite. If you don’t have a computer, you are isolated.” Commentary should reflect the research which shows the positive role technology can play.
15. Training needs to be delivered to older people in a way which best works for them, adopting the ‘user pull’ approach of being digital by choice, as advocated for by Socitm, the Society for innovation, technology and modernisation. The organisation’s research shows that ‘top-down, technology-push approach focused on basic digital skills tend to exacerbate the problems and discomfort of people unfamiliar with information and communication technologies, rather than easing them’. Instead training should be user-led, readily available and delivered in welcoming and friendly venues, free of time pressure and assessments.
16. Crucially digital interventions for fighting loneliness levels should exist alongside non-digital interventions, otherwise technology, and the assumption that everyone is using it, can exacerbate older people’s loneliness levels. Older people, as well as the population more broadly, should be given a choice over what technology and online services they can use. With the movement of more government services online, older people are not alone in being at risk of losing out on welfare support, if they are unable to make the transition online. As Prof Philip Alston, UN Special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights commented in October 2019, the digital welfare state does not easily respond to sudden changes in circumstances, such as ‘an older person whose entitlement has suddenly and inexplicably been electronically reduced or cancelled’. Prof Alston ends his report with the following recommendation:
“To date astonishingly little attention has been paid to the ways in which new technologies might transform the welfare state for the better. Instead of obsessing about fraud, cost savings, sanctions, and market-driven definitions of efficiency, the starting point should be on how existing or even expanded welfare budgets could be transformed through technology to ensure a higher standard of living for the vulnerable and disadvantaged, to devise new ways of caring for those who have been left behind, and more effective techniques for addressing the needs of those who are struggling to enter or re-enter the labour market. That would be the real digital welfare state revolution.”
17. The benefits arising from media technology, especially televisions and radios, relies upon high-quality public service broadcasting, which is increasingly at risk. This broadcasting is highly beneficial in reducing loneliness and increasing health levels. The needs of lonely people must be taken into consideration when deciding upon the future of public service broadcasting. Many of WaveLength’s beneficiaries would be unable to afford subscription-based services such as Netflix and Amazon Prime, so public service broadcasting provides a vital role for lonely and isolated individuals. As multi-billion pound companies are generating significant profits, little of this benefits UK PLC, and WaveLength is concerned that this will disenfranchise many older people, with nearly two out of five (38%) of people aged 75+ relying on television as their main form of company. Decisions over the licence fee, the potential closure of the Red Button service, amongst other issues need to be taken in the interests of all UK citizens, including those who are some of the most lonely and isolated.
14 February 2019
 WaveLength Charity. ‘Everyday Technology Fighting Loneliness’, June 2019. https://wavelength.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2019/06/WaveLength-Everyday-technology-fighting-loneliness.pdf.
 WaveLength Charity. ‘Everyday Technology Fighting Loneliness’, p.5.
 WaveLength Charity, ‘The Big Connect: A Media Cure for Modern Loneliness’, 2016, https://wavelength.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2016/03/WP-2665-WaveLength-final-report-designed-Nov-2015.docx.
 WaveLength Charity. ‘The Big Connect: A Media Cure for Modern Loneliness’, 2016. https://wavelength.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2016/03/WP-2665-WaveLength-final-report-designed-Nov-2015.docx.
 ‘Home’, Music Mirrors, accessed 7 February 2020, https://www.musicmirrors.co.uk.
 ‘Media Nations 2019: Interactive Report’, Ofcom, 27 January 2020, https://www.ofcom.org.uk/research-and-data/tv-radio-and-on-demand/media-nations-2019/media-nations-2019-interactive-report.
 Personal Social Services Research Uni, LSE. ‘Making the Economic Case for Investing in Actions to Prevent and/or Tackle Loneliness: A Systematic Review’, September 2017. http://www.lse.ac.uk/business-and-consultancy/consulting/assets/documents/making-the-economic-case-for-investing-in-actions-to-prevent-and-or-tackle-loneliness-a-systematic-review.pdf.
 Lloyds Bank. ‘Lloyds Bank UK Consumer Digital Index 2019’, May 2019. https://www.lloydsbank.com/banking-with-us/whats-happening/consumer-digital-index/key-findings.asp.
 WaveLength Charity. ‘Beneficiary Review Survey 2011’, 2011.
 ‘Exploring the UK’s Digital Divide - Office for National Statistics’. Accessed 22 October 2019. https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/householdcharacteristics/homeinternetandsocialmediausage/articles/exploringtheuksdigitaldivide/2019-03-04.
 Socitm. ‘Digital by Choice: Bridging the Digital Divide’, December 2018, p.7. https://socitm.net/download/policy-briefing-digital-by-choice-bridging-the-digital-divide-part-2/.
 Socitm. ‘Digital by Choice: Bridging the Digital Divide’, p.8.
 Socitm. ‘Digital by Choice: Bridging the Digital Divide’, December 2018, p. 3. https://socitm.net/download/policy-briefing-digital-by-choice-bridging-the-digital-divide-part-1/.
 Alston, Philip. ‘Report of the Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights’, 11 October 2019, p.15. https://undocs.org/A/74/493.
 Alston. ‘Report of the Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights’, p.20.
 Age UK. ‘Age UK—Written Evidence (PSB0019)’, 26 April 2019. http://data.parliament.uk/writtenevidence/committeeevidence.svc/evidencedocument/communications-committee/public-service-broadcasting-in-the-age-of-video-on-demand/written/100982.html#_ftn13.