The digital divide

Even though the INCLUSO project goes beyond bridging the digital divide, the concept still deserves our attention in this manual. To which extent do the youngsters we work with have access to ICT and the internet ? How do they use it ? Do they have the right skills to use it ? Do they use it in the right way ?

The RIGA declaration of 2006 brought the issue of ICT for an inclusive society to the European forefront by outlining a number of goals for the member states to achieve, in order to make sure that every European citizen can make use of the full potential of today’s information society. More and more information and services are available online and give those with access to them benefits over those who do not.

Even though access to internet is on the rise throughout Europe and it seems that the digital divide is slowly being bridged, we should not forget that those who are most deprived socially are least likely to have access to digital resources such as online services, which could result in a ‘rich getting richer’ scenario, if the issue is not handled properly. 77% of Europeans with a higher education used the internet in 2006, whereas only 25% of those with low education used the internet. 38% of unemployed and 17% of economically inactive persons used the internet as compared to 60% of those employed, and 84% students.

Different sources from our literature study also mention the fact that while the digital divide, separating those with access to ICT and the internet from those without, might be narrowing, the digital divide itself is changing as well. This new digital divide focuses on having the skills needed for basic computer and internet use, as opposed to having physical access to the internet.

Moreover, when we distinguish various levels of complexity in how one can use the internet, there seems to be a divide as well between those who make more advanced use of the internet and those who do not. A study by the Oxford Internet Institute commissioned by the Department for Communities and Local Government in the UK makes the distinction between basic, intermediate and advanced internet use. Once again we see that as the level of complexity of internet use rises, the participation in such activities by those people with low levels of education or income is considerably lower as compared to those with higher levels of education or income. The study goes on to describe that:

  • the socially isolated emerge as being particularly excluded from the advanced networking resources of the Internet which have the potential to help them become less isolated;
  • the economically disadvantaged are particularly excluded from intermediate participation resources of the Internet, including government services, and financial resources, which provide enhanced access to the services they need;
  • a poor education is a barrier to accessing education and learning resources on the Internet;
  • being unemployed (and therefore more likely to be financially constrained) reduces the likelihood of benefiting from online buying (which could save money);
  • Being retired, unemployed and having fewer educational achievements (and potentially being more dependent on government services and support) reduces the choice and the likelihood of benefiting from electronic government services (which can be more convenient and responsive than traditional services).

This stresses the need for proper training and guidance regarding the use of ICT and Internet for those at risk of social exclusion. Yet when observing how those at risk of social exclusion make use of the Internet, we should also look beyond skill and training alone, as what people expect, want and ‘consume’ on the Internet is also related to socio-economical status. Research by Bonfadelli among Swiss households finds that people with lower incomes more often use the internet for entertainment purposes and people with higher income more often for informational and service oriented purposes. Another study by Valentine et al. finds that students using ICT for educational purposes had higher educational attainment than those using ICT solely for entertainment purposes. In other words, not only access to ICT but also HOW we use ICT matters.

Steyaert and Gould raise an important moral issue, as we cannot dictate how people make use of the Internet at home. If an individual feels like using the Internet purely for entertainment purposes instead of using it for gaining access to information or services that could be beneficial, then who is in the position of challenging this? Steyaert and Gould go on to state that it could be one of the new challenges for social work to tackle this issue of ‘content preferences’ next to bridging the digital divides and its evolving face. How could the organisations working with marginalised youngsters best approach this issue ?

A study by Crang et al., finally, makes an interesting distinction between use of internet by affluent, professional groups, who have regular access to the internet and internet use by marginalised individuals who often only have periodic internet access. Periodic access to internet seems more related to information use, whereas pervasive and continuous internet use seems to be a better basis for sustaining social relations over the internet. This would support the case for ensuring regular and frequent access to the Internet for those marginalised youngsters participating in the INCLUSO project.

We conclude with another concern voiced by Steyaert and Gould that was important for us to keep in mind during the course of the project. As we move more and more social work services into the digital, we must make sure that either everyone of the target group is on board or make sure that those who do not have access to the services offered via digital means have equal access to them in other ways.