This is my brief post for The Equality Trust. Social inequalities play a key role in information society, influencing citizens’ engagement in political, social, cultural and education life. Social inequalities influence the way in which individuals access, use and enjoy the benefits of Information Communication Technologies (ICTs), and the internet in particular.
Inequalities connected with the introduction of ICTs are intertwined with already existing social inequalities, in a circular and cumulative process. Groups slower in adopting the new technology will not always will be able to bridge the gap with the fastest, with the consequent growth of differential access and use. It is likely that over time the problem of the gap in access will tend to decrease. In the UK, for instance, more than 90% of population access the internet. However, at the same time, inequalities in using ICTs are increasing. Indeed, not all technological innovations are equal, since some citizens/users may have more capacity/skills/motivation/interest than others in accessing and using such technologies. As several studies have suggested, digital inequalities, in terms of political participation, healthcare and education, are entangled with already-existing social inequalities.
Digital inequalities not only reproduce social inequalities in the digital realm, but also tend to exacerbate them. Since socially disadvantaged groups – in terms of, inter alia, age, gender, ethnicity, location (urban or rural) and disability – tend to use the internet less intensively than their more advantaged groups, digital inequalities must be analysed in relation to people’s offline circumstances. Several researchers have established that features such as income, educational level and social status influence engagement with ICTs and the skills used to enjoy the internet. For instance, according to Digital Index 2018, households earning over £40,000 per year are 47% more likely to have full “basic digital skills”. To put it differently, as household income increases, so do the levels of basic digital skills, demonstrating a strong correlation between income and digital skills. At a time when, there are 4.3 million people (8%) in the UK with no basic digital skills and 11.3 million people (21%) with only limited digital awareness, the issue of digital inequalities and digital exclusion is more important than ever.
But what can be done to reduce digital inequalities? To tackle digital inequalities it is not enough just to offer cheaper and faster physical access to the internet. This will definitely reduce the gap between those who connect and those who do not, but it does not automatically translate into improved engagement with digital technologies. Digital inclusion is also about having the right access, skills, trust and motivation to go online with confidence. Moreover, digital inclusion means the capacity to use ICTs in ways that promote inclusion and well-being to fully participate in digital society, in particular in areas such as education, public safety, and public health. For this reason, there are numerous digital inclusion initiatives across the country. However, much more could be done to tackle digital inequalities, since unequal access and use of ICTs can create new forms of social segregation, while also compounding existing forms of inequality and injustice. Promoting digital skills and digital literacy programmes have been shown to yield positive effects on employability, social inclusion and well-being.