Digital Citizenship

The Digital Divide

Conceptualising the diverse topic that exists in today’s world, this blog post will approach the digital divide with an outlook of hope that the widening gap will one day close. Starting with a brief understanding of how exactly the digital divide came about, explanations will then be brought forward to help further explore this contemporary digital phenomenon. The digital divide in Ireland is a significant case that differs from others, in the sense that it is slightly harder to comprehend the reasoning for it. Questioning the age of a new digital divide across the world, this post will scrutinise how children are impacted most within these technological environments and advances. In a final examination of this issue, possible solutions will be served in the hope to ‘connect the unconnected’.

What is the Digital Divide?
Used to describe the widening gap that exists between those individuals and societies whose lives are benefitted by internet access and those who aren’t, the digital divide is prevalent across the globe. The importance of the words ‘internet’ and ‘access’ are significant here as in past definitions of what the digital divide is emphasis was placed on the lack of equality in other socioeconomic elements of daily life. These socioeconomic characteristics include race, income, education and occupation. In this sense and according to Colby, the digital divide is “the disparity in access across classifications of race, gender, age, income, and education to telephone, personal computers, and the internet” (2001:123-173). However, in more recent attempts to define the digital divide and how it consumes societies, a drastic move away from condemning socioeconomic characteristics has occurred with the hope that one day the world will suffice with a ‘learning-divide’ or ‘content-divide’ (Rodgers, 2001).

Explanations for the Divide
The first of many intricate and interconnecting reasons that have assisted the evolution of the digital divide is the lack of computer ownership and access to the internet. The simplistic reality of this first reason is that if one does not possess a personal computer, then access to the internet is subsequently and obviously non-existent. In this way, one must question why the lack of a computer in the modern world still exists. In September 2014 84% of households in the U.S. owned a computer with 73% of those possessing internet access (Cohn, 2014). This leaves just under one-fifth of the American population without access to a computer almost 25 years after the birth of the World Wide Web. Described as a ‘patchwork of connectivity’ the US remains unanimously unconnected in certain areas (Cohn, 2014). The reasoning behind this relates back to Cobly’s theory that socioeconomic factors can contribute to the development of the digital divide and in this case possession and usage of personal computers. While the price tag that comes with internet and broadband deals and packages isn’t overly expensive, it is undeniable that the cost of computers and laptops can put strain on personal budget. In 2017 the average price of a PC worldwide rested at 629 US dollars, with the increasing prices annually caused by expensive memory and hard drive components (Statistica, 2017). Socioeconomic variables such as earnings and income are deciding factors in the possession of personal computers.

The second reason for the development of the digital divide in the US can be examined under demographic characteristics. Age, ethnicity and physical health are all contributing elements in this explanation. In 2016, 13% of American adults did not actively use the internet, with 41% of those being over the age of 65 (PBS, 2016). Age is a considerable component to the evolution of the digital divide when even in most cases age is the first explanation people think of when they imagine an unconnected and divided world, digitally speaking. At the birth of the World Wide Web in 1989 anyone over the age of approximately 60 years had already settled into an internet-free-lifestyle. Not only was the concept of surfing the web an alien ideology to them but the cost of owning a device that, as they saw it, wouldn’t have added any value to their daily routine, was simply incomprehensible. The ethnicity of people living in America is also a considerable factor within the region of demographic characteristics. In 2000, only 24% of Hispanics and African Americans had internet access from home, contrasting starkly with the 46% of Whites and 57% of Asians who lived in the U.S. (Rodgers, 2001). Analysing this information offers the portrayal of how ethnicity and ethnic background can play an important role in the accessibility of internet access. Along the same strain of examination, the English language allowed for limited online access in the early days of the internet due to the simple fact that when it was developed in 1989, most web pages were in English. In this respect, anyone who did not speak English, teach English, or study English was left burdened by a cultural barrier astray from complete internet access in its entirety.

The Divide in Ireland
The factors that cause the digital divide in Ireland differ from those in America in the early 2000s. Low population density as well as the geography and topography of Ireland’s predominantly rural regions are the main contributions. Excuses for this have been made by internet providers in the past, claiming that the country’s harsh terrain is an unsuitable climate for complete internet availability. However, in contrast to this the argument, the discussion has developed to the consideration of age isolation and economic status. Taking age into the debate first, when living in a world where many service providers such as banks are advising the switch to online banking and mobile apps, those elderly who do not have internet access represent an entire generation that are being left behind, increasingly cut off from the benefits and opportunities that internet use has to offer (Macinnes, 2018). For the older generation in Ireland, being active online is a vital way of linking one generation to the next, keeping in touch with family members and simply feeling connected and a active member of society. In economic terms, and as mentioned previously, cost and income are prevalent explanations for the digital divide in Ireland. Single adults who live alone are among some of the least likely Irish households to use the internet, and homes with no employed inhabitants use the internet less than the average household (Weckler, 2015).

The New Age of the Digital Divide
What is becoming increasingly prevalent in societies across many third world countries is children’s use of the internet. Where the argument previously centred on the lack of internet access available to the elderly, consideration can now be shifted to the abundance of internet access that is in reach of children. As all societal changes seemingly occur, one generation suffers and another gain, but in respect of the developing digital divide the question is whether or not the children of the digital age are gaining in any fashion. In today’s society, more and more children have access to the online world leading to increased negativity and vulnerability in their young lives. In 2017, one in eight young people were bullied on social media online, and in the same year three in four parents looked for advice on how to help their children to cope with online difficulties (NSPCC, 2017). Where the divide develops in this scenario is not only between the elderly and the young but more significantly between children and their parents. Parents are now faced with the pressures of online bullying, understanding what too much internet access for their children means, while also assembling respectful boundaries and restrictions. Because of the speedy development of the internet, parents have not had time to come to terms with how to raise their children in a digital environment, and there’s no such thing as an instruction manual. The gap that has formed between children and their parents is an unfortunate one; one that can cause great despair and isolation for both parties involved.

Connecting the Unconnected
So, what can be done to bridge the gap that remains almost thirty years after the first invention of the World Wide Web. As discussed above, economic issues are very prevalent with households on one income struggling to adjust to the digital world; therefore affordability of internet provisions and costs is a must. Encouraging the older generations to access the online world is also necessary, even if it is so that they can avail of simple online platforms such as online banking. In terms of children’s use of the internet, this needs to be monitored and remains crucial to preventing the fear of online abuse, bullying or isolation occurring.


Rachel McGonigle is currently an undergraduate student in the Bachelor of Sciences (Applied Social Sciences) Degree Programme at the National University of Ireland Galway