What Is the Digital Divide?

Examining the need for broader access to technology

The digital divide describes the disparity between populations with access to modern communications technologies (cellphones, the internet, etc.) and those without access. This article explains what the digital divide is and its global consequences.

What Is the Digital Divide and Why Is It Important?

The exact definition of the digital divide has evolved alongside technological advancements. For example, the divide used to refer primarily to the availability of cellphone towers, but now the divide is defined by access to high-speed internet access. Lack of internet access means limited access to education, job opportunities, medical information, and social communities.

The digital divide spans developed and developing nations, but it also exists between urban and rural areas within countries. Globally, there are digital divides between men and women, the young and the old, the wealthy and the poor, and the educated and less educated.

Digital Divide Examples

During the coronavirus pandemic lockdowns, traditional in-person educational instruction was suspended worldwide as classrooms went virtual. Consequently, students without internet access were left behind. In 2020, at the pandemic's start, about 16 million K-12 students in the U.S. didn't have access to an internet-enabled device. Students in southern states, particularly students of color and those from low-income families, are less likely to have reliable internet access than their peers.

These disparities can have devastating life-long consequences. The UN estimates that school closures could collectively cost $17 trillion in lost lifetime earnings for the current generation of students. People also rely heavily on the internet to set up medical appoints, so being on the wrong side of the digital divide can lead to poorer health outcomes.

Although the digital divide in the U.S. has narrowed as electronics have dropped in price, nearly a quarter of adults with household incomes below $30,000 a year still don't own a smartphone, and about 40% do not have a computer or home broadband services.

Causes of the Digital Divide

Limitations to communications technology include inadequate infrastructure, the availability of affordable personal electronics (smartphones, laptops, etc.), and the education necessary to use those devices. Young people who started using computers in elementary school (or earlier) are more likely to possess the skills needed to navigate the internet than someone who didn't grow up with the internet.

Another reason for the digital divide is the lack of government investment in infrastructure. In many parts of the world, people have internet-enabled devices, but there's no internet connection available. Most of the cables for international internet communication are laid underwater on the ocean floor, so larger countries with ocean borders typically have superior internet access.

Poorer nations in the global south are also less likely to have internet access. For example, in 2020, only about 40% of Africans could access the web compared to the 65% global average. More than 70% of urban dwellers worldwide have home internet access compared to people in rural areas with less than 40% with internet access.

Consequences of the Digital Divide

The internet was once considered a luxury; however, internet access and digital literacy are necessary for building wealth in today's world. Businesses without an online presence can't compete in the global economy. An increasing number of jobs require computer skills, so those on the wrong side of the divide are at a distinct economic disadvantage.

The digital divide exacerbates existing social inequalities, such as the income gap between women and men. People with severe mental illness are less likely to have the tools to use the web, which can also result in social isolation and mental health challenges, especially during pandemic lockdowns.

The digital divide isn't just a concern for poorer nations. All nations would benefit from a better-connected world. One study suggests that just a 10% increase in broadband access in the U.S. would result in 875,000 new jobs and $186 billion in additional economic output. If we extrapolate those numbers worldwide, closing the digital divide could add trillions of dollars to the global GDP.

Closing the Digital Divide

Equal access to the web is a critical element of the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDG). The U.N. recommends that countries collaborate to invest in communications infrastructure and digital literacy programs. Private sector innovations like Starlink (Starlink provides internet coverage to rural areas via satellites) could also be pivotal in narrowing the digital gap.

For example, the United States recently passed the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which allocates $65 billion to bring high-speed internet to rural and low-income Americans. States have implemented similar programs. Texas, Alabama, and Oklahoma have provided laptops and internet access for over one million students.

Another vital issue is Net Neutrality or the concept that everyone should have access to the web with no restrictions or censorship. For example, Net Neutrality policies prevent internet service providers (ISPs) from creating fast lanes for certain companies. Net Neutrality legislation will be essential to ensuring fair access at the national level.

  • What is a generational digital divide?

    Younger and older generations may experience a digital divide based on experience level with technology. Young people who grew up with the internet have a high level of digital literacy. They can use and communicate through all kinds of technology. People learning technology later in life might need more guidance to become comfortable with it.

  • How are the digital divide and the knowledge gap hypothesis related?

    The digital divide can add to or be a part of the knowledge gap. The knowledge gap theory suggests that wealthier people have more immediate access to information from various media. People with fewer financial resources might not have the technology to find this information. This lack of access also means potentially missing out on the chance to develop digital literacy. 

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