Why address the digital divide?

Recently I wrote a series of posts looking at some of the data in relation to the digital divide and which groups in society are most affected by a lack of access to the internet. However, whilst identifying the nature of the divide and which groups could be identified as ‘information poor’, the reasons for addressing the depth of the divide have not really been addressed. There is a divide, but why does it need addressing and why are attempts to address it under threat?

As the data in my previous posts confirmed, it is generally (but not exclusively) the low paid and the most vulnerable in society who are presently on the wrong side of the digital divide and can be therefore described as ‘information poor’. Differences in income certainly play a crucial in consolidating the depth of the existing divide. Those with gross weekly earnings below £200 per week are significantly less likely to have accessed the internet at all compared to those earning over £500 per week. Likewise, the over 65s and the housebound are significantly less likely to have ever used the internet than other sections of society. Furthermore, it would appear that whilst many within these groups would state that the costs of having an internet connection at home are too high, it seems logical that many would also fall within the 50% of those who claim that they “don’t need the internet”.  Not to mention the proportion who believe they lack the skills. But why specifically should we be concerned about this?

Access to information is a key requirement for a fully functioning democracy. Without such access it is difficult for the electorate to know what our elected representatives are doing in our name at the heart of government. The growth of the internet, particularly sites such as They Work For You and What Do They Know, has made more information about the political process available than ever before.  This means, of course, that there is far more information to be consumed by those wishing to get engaged in the political process or to better understand political issues.  A report by the Pew Internet and American Life Project in 2004 found that:

Those with high-speed internet connections at home are more reliant on the internet for news on the average day than dial-up users. Broadband users have a more varied mix of news media than other respondents. Of the news sources we asked about, broadband users seek out about 3 on the average day, while dial-up users turn to 2.7 sources, and non-users try 1.7 sources.

The implication is clear. Those that are connected seek more information on current affairs than those without. With the range of news sources available at a click of the mouse, it is perhaps unsurprising to know that those with a connection investigate more resources. Those without will rely on their (often entirely one-sided) daily newspaper or the broadcast media, neither of which will obviously present a comprehensive range of views, opinions or, indeed, facts. Greater access to the internet means a better informed electorate. Or does it?

Another study by Pew back in 2007 revealed the following (via Walk You Home):

Whilst there has been increased knowledge in certain areas, certainly very many areas demonstrated that the %age of Americans who knew certain key political facts had actually declined. The key difference between 1989 and 2007 being the growth of the internet of course. It would not be unreasonable to assume that with the growth of the internet would come greater awareness of a range of political issues. Keeping in mind, of course, that the earlier Pew report in 2004 (three years before the above survey) revealed that those with a broadband connection consulted almost twice as many news sources as those without a connection. However, there is one key difference between 2004 and 2007: the growth of social networking. Is it possible that the development of Facebook, Twitter et al have impacted upon the range of news resources any individual consults? Are they spending less engaging and more time networking?  Or is engagement in social networking leading to individuals being exposed to far more sources than they would have otherwise?  The internet of 2004 was very different to that in 2007. Of course, this is entirely speculation but one wonders what the impact of social networking has actually been on engagement in political issues and the extent to which it has enhanced or diminished exposure to a variety of news sources.

There are also, of course, economic benefits available to those with an internet connection. As anyone reading this will know, online retailers such as Amazon and Play have allowed people to purchase goods at much lower prices than those offered on the high street (which in turn has led to many high street retailers collapsing, impacting upon those who are not connected and have no option but to rely on the high street). And it is not just retailing, price comparison sites have enabled consumers to make substantial savings on insurance and utilities with one study in the US suggesting as much as 20% savings. Obviously it goes without saying that with such savings available those that earn less than £200 gross weekly income would substantially benefit from access to the internet. They are, without doubt, saddled with higher costs than perhaps could be available to them if they had access to an internet connection.

As well as economic benefits, there are substantial educational advantages available to those with an internet connection. A report commissioned by the Department for Education and Skills, for example, revealed that there is a significant “positive relationship” between pupils’ use of ICT and educational attainment. Furthermore, The e-Learning Foundation claimed that:

…children without access to a computer in the evening are being increasingly disadvantaged in the classroom. Research suggests that 1.2 million teenagers log on to revision pages every week and those using online resources were on average likely to attain a grade higher in exams.

The charity cites BBC research in which more than 100 students used the BBC Bitesize revision materials before their GCSE examination. The children were found to have achieved a grade lift compared to those who did not use the online revision guides. The BBC study says: “This is compared to factors such as teacher influence, which was found to produce no significant difference.”

There is, therefore, a clear link between education attainment and home internet access.

What we see, therefore, is a clear divide between those children who have an internet connection at home and those who do not. Given that, as the figures revealed, a significant proportion of those on the lowest incomes either do not have an internet connection at home or have never used the internet, it is difficult to see how the children of those on lower incomes can break the cycle. With the potential impact a lack of access will have on their educational attainment, it is likely this will have a subsequent effect on the development of their skills which will then have a knock-on effect in terms of their ability to make use of the internet, even if they were to obtain a home connection in adult life. For without basic literacy skills how can we possibly expect an individual to be able to utilise the internet to their advantage? Indeed, the current literacy levels in the UK suggest that there are a great many people out there that need skilled support in order to take full advantage of the internet.

These are just a few reasons why there is (still) a pressing need to address the digital divide. It is depressing that after over ten years since the launch of The People’s Networkwe are still reflecting on the gap between the information haves and have-nots. Of course, a significant reason why we still need to consider these factors is that public libraries, for so long a key institution in getting people online and closing the digital divide, are under serious threat of closure. And not just closure, many libraries are being forced on community groups to be staffed by volunteers. There is not only a divide in terms of access, but also a divide in terms of skills. What is required is skilled support to ensure that the unconnected can get connected and reap the benefits the rest of us take for granted. Of course, there is still a degree of persuasion required. When many still do not consider that they need the internet (despite the various advantages outlined here) there is a need to convince them of the benefits access to the internet provides for them. Race Online 2012 also attempted to address this question, but there is still much work to be done, particularly when 5.7 million households do not have an internet connection.

Libraries have always been primarily concerned with providing free access to information. As such, they have a key role in providing access to the internet for the general public, ensuring equality of access to information across the board. If libraries do not provide this service what institution will? Sure, corporate providers may offer internet access to the general public, but that will be at a cost and those on the lowest incomes who are currently excluded are not likely to divert resources to use an internet cafe or equivalent. If substantial support is required (don’t forget 56% of working-age adults have literacy levels below a good GCSE pass) who will provide it? The commercial provider? If so, at what cost? No, if we want to ensure that the digital divide is closed and opportunities are truly available to all, our public libraries must remain in the front line. It is arguable that they have fallen short to a degree, but they still offer the best opportunity for providing the support required to close this divide. This means properly funded libraries with skilledsupport to ensure that those that need it have it. It is only through proper funding and support that we can close this divide and, with it, enrich our democracy, raise educational attainment and strengthen our economy. Bridging the digital divide not only benefits the excluded, it benefits society as a whole.