The digital divide: inequality in access and skills in children and young people

The International Telecommunications Union (ITU) World Telecommunication Development Conference, which took place on June 6 in Kigali, Rwanda, saw the launch of the Global Connectivity Report 2022.

One chapter of the publication, authored by Professor Sonia LivingstoneProfessor Ellen Helsper and Dr. Miriam Rahali from LSE, examines the opportunities and risks of the most connected generation – today’s children and youth – and what efforts are needed to attain full digital inclusion.

The uptake of connectivity and digital devices, fueled by the increasing adoption of disruptive technologies such as AI and IoT, has been expanding rapidly across the globe. 71% of youth (15 to 24 years of age) are regular users of the internet, making them the largest and most connected age group and likely to benefit from an increasingly digitalized world where the digital experience and skills are crucial to future employment prospects.

But positive and long-term societal change can only happen if all stakeholders in society work jointly to address the digital divide at multiple levels. Data from UNICEF and ITU in the report show that only 40% of school-age children have access to the Internet at home, with stark divergences across income groups and regions. For instance, 9 of 10 school-aged children high-income countries have access to Internet at home, compared to fewer than 1 in 5 in most low-income countries.

It should also be stressed that access to the internet itself does not determine the value the youth gain from the internet. Indeed, even if the current gaps in access were to be bridged, how access is used may further exacerbate existing socio-economic inequalities. This second level of the digital divide underlines the crucial role those digital skills play in balancing both the risks and opportunities of ICT use and digital engagement.

Opportunities and risks of digital connection

It is increasingly important for children and young people to acquire a deeper understanding of the underlying issues shaping and driving the online environment they interact with. Opportunities and risks tend to go hand in hand – where more access and higher digital skill levels usually result in higher exposure to online risks. Given the evolving nature of the digital landscape, it is possible that children and youth are exposed to risks before they are media literate or have become online resilient – or in the absence of legal, regulatory and policy frameworks and protection mechanisms

Effective initiatives seeking to close the digital divide

It is essential to produce and improve robust evidence on the digital access, use, skills and outcomes of children and youth. International cooperation will also be vital in ensuring alignment in definitions and comparable metrics that enables progress tracking, problem identification and sharing of best practices.

Establishing clearer and more advanced metrics for monitoring digital inclusion would certainly help in removing barriers and closing gaps. For instance, individual opportunities for children and youth are poorly documented (especially in disaggregated form) compared to household access to the internet. On top of that, there is little evidence and data on the quality of digital experiences and outcomes, including online opportunities and risks of exclusion stemming from the internet. Two key initiatives in this space are: Global Kids Online which is working on key metrics for access, activities, risks and safety (now being adopted by ITU) and the ySKILLS project which developed an index for measuring youth digital skills.

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