The digital divide continues to narrow in Australia

The digital divide continues to narrow in Australia
The digital divide continues to narrow in Australia

GUEST OBSERVER

The digital divide continues to narrow in Australia but important divisions persist, and there are clear disparities between different groups in their use of the internet.

It’s a pattern that’s been apparent for some time and it has been confirmed by an analysis of data on the household use of technology released last week by the Australian Bureau of Statistics. 

First, the good news. The research found 85 percent of Australians aged 15 and older were internet users and that 86 percent of Australian households had internet access in 2014-15 (up from 83 percent two years previous and 67 percent in 2007-08).

The digital divide 

The kicker in these figures is that as more and more Australians are online, the disadvantage of being offline grows. So as the divide narrrows, it gets deeper.

Meanwhile, teachers assume their students have unrestricted access to the internet and set homework accordingly; businesses assume their customers are internet users and shape their offerings online; and governments shift resources to digital provision of information and opportunities to interact. 

But household access to the internet is not spread evenly across Australian states and territories. At one end of the scale, 94 percent of ACT households enjoy an internet connection while at the other, only 82 percent of Tasmanian and South Australian households have access. 

Those living in major cities are more likely to have access than those in rural and remote Australia; 88 percent of households in our major cities have access. This falls to 82% for those living inner regional and 79 percent for those in outer regional and remote, or very remote, areas. 

While two thirds of low-income households have access, 98 percent of the highest-income households have an internet connection. And it’s not just access that is affected by income. 

Of the lowest-income households, 44 percent have a tablet in the home, compared to 76% of the highest-income households. The mean number of devices used to access the internet in the lowest-income households is four compared to seven in the highest. 

This is important because these devices enable individuals in the household to access the internet simultaneously. Homework can be done while someone else plays games while that night’s cook looks up recipes online.

Education counts

The more highly educated you are, the more likely you are to be an internet user; 96 percent of those with a bachelor degree or higher use the internet. As educational attainment falls, this proportion decreases, down to 77 percent for those with Year 12 or below. 

Internet use by employed Australians is 93 percent; for unemployed only 70 percent. 

Age is still a key factor in internet use. Just over a half of Australians aged 65 or over use the internet while the corresponding figure of those aged 15-17 is 98.6 percent. The big drop-off in use is between those aged 55-64 (81 percent) and those in the oldest age group.

There are indications that older Australians who do use the internet are not deriving the benefits of younger users. Surprisingly, internet users aged 25-34 are twice as likely as those aged 65 or more to access health services online (32 percent to 16 percent). 

The story is the same for regional and remote Australia. The further you get from physical health services, the less likely you are to use the internet to access online health services.

This pattern is repeated for formal education online. Of internet users living in a major city, 27 percent accessed formal education online compared to 21 percent living inner regional, 20 percent in outer regional and 17 percent who are remote or very remote areas. 

Working from home

Using the internet to work from home is strongly related to income. While just under a third of employed persons living in a low-income household worked from home via the internet, 62 percent of those in the highest-income households teleworked. 

The regional pattern was also interesting. Those living in major cities or in rural and remote Australia were equally likely to telework (46 percent) compared to 38 percent living in inner regional Australia and 35 percent in outer regional Australia. 

Addressing the digital divide and fostering digital inclusion remains a challenging and important public policy issue in Australia. The Go Digi Project, a collaboration between Infoxchange and Australia Post, have designated 2016 the National Year of Digital Inclusion.

Telstra along with partners the Swinburne Institute and the Centre for Social Impact are developing the Australian Digital Inclusion Index to be launched later this year. This is an attempt to better understand who is not engaging online and how that might be remedied.

So there is a lot happening in this space.

As more and more resources shift online and connectivity becomes the norm for most Australians, the disadvantage faced by those not online or those with limited access, increases. And as faster broadband is rolled out via the national broadband network, the relative disadvantage of those on more modest connections will increase.

Just as importantly, building the digital capacity of disadvantaged Australians to enable them to take full advantage of online resources remains a critical issue. We must ensure that those with the most to gain from the digital revolution are able to fully engage with the online world.

Australia's connection to the internet continues to grow but there are still 1.3 million households not online.

Scott Ewing is senior research fellow, Swinburne University of Technology, and author for The Conversation. He can be contacted here.

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