Digital Inclusion Report warns of COVID impact

Centre for Social Impact

The 2020 Australian Digital Inclusion Index (ADII), published today, shows that a high level of digital inequality persists in Australia with many groups continuing to miss out on the benefits of being online.

Telstra Group Executive Lyndall Stoyles said the digital inequality highlighted in the report is made more pronounced by the social and economic impact of COVID-19 and steps will need to be taken to ensure that those facing financial hardship do not fall into the digital divide.

“The impact of COVID-19, with its shutdown of schools, services and social facilities, has accelerated the shift to digital alternatives and, while that brings benefit to many, there are still too many Australians facing real barriers to online participation,” Ms Stoyles said.

The ADII is an annual study produced by RMIT University’s Digital Ethnography Research Centre and Swinburne University’s Centre for Social Impact in partnership with Telstra and powered by Roy Morgan data.

The research explores Digital Inclusion in terms of three dimensions – access, affordability and digital ability. It gives a comprehensive assessment of digital inclusion in Australia and outlines the challenges Australia faces in closing the digital divide.

Included in the report:

COVID-19 has been highly disruptive for students in low-income family households

There are just under four million primary and secondary students in Australia. Approximately 800,000 of these students are from households who earn less than $35,000 per annum. These households record an Index score more than 10 points below the national average, and 15.5 points lower than families with school-aged children in other income brackets. They are often lacking access to technology options, and suitable devices, pay a larger proportion of their household income for digital services, and have lower digital skills.

“In a time when COVID-19 has forced periods of home-schooling on many, the implications of the report are truly troubling. There is a concern if these students do not get immediate and significant support, their education could be permanently affected,” Ms Stoyles said.

Low levels of digital inclusion for older Australians increase the risks of social isolation and loneliness

The 2020 Australian Digital Inclusion Index report shows that people aged 65+ are one of the least digitally included groups in Australia. Many older Australians are not online at all, while those that are report lower levels of effective and affordable internet access and digital skills. Older Australians are less able to use the internet as an alternative to face-to-face social interactions curtailed by COVID-19 physical distancing measures – putting older Australians at a greater risk of social isolation and loneliness.

Although they are not the only digitally excluded group in this situation, two factors may further exacerbate the risks confronting older Australians. First, older Australians are much more likely to live alone and thereby rely on the types of public social contact restricted by the COVID-19 measures. Second, because of their heightened vulnerability to COVID-19, this cohort has been encouraged to be particularly vigilant in reducing their physical social contact.

“Those most vulnerable to COVID-19 are also most likely to be digitally excluded and with that comes very real health and mental health risks” said Ms Stoyles.

Also outlined in the ADII report:

  • Improvements in access have slowed.

    While the vast majority of Australians are now online, there are still 2.5 million Australians who are not accessing the internet at all. Convincing this group to get online is a key challenge.

  • Affordability remains a key challenge.

    For those living in the lowest income quintiles, the per cent of household income spent on internet services has increased year on year and now exceeds 4%.

  • There remain significant attitudinal barriers to effective participation on the internet.

    While COVID-19 restrictions may have made the benefits of digital technologies more obvious, it is important to address the anxieties or scepticism that many Australians have about using digital technologies.

Distinguished Professor Julian Thomas from RMIT’s Digital Ethnography Research Centre (and lead researcher) said, “The pandemic has underlined the importance of digital inclusion. This report shows that more work is urgently needed to ensure that all Australians can benefit from the digital economy.”

Distinguished Professor Jo Barraket, Director of the Centre for Social Impact Swinburne said, “The events of 2020 have really shone a light on how vital digital inclusion is. It’s more important than ever that people who typically experience barriers to inclusion are better supported to participate through affordable and accessible technologies and the abilities to use these well.”

For moreinformation visit the Australian Digital Inclusion Index website.

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