Digital divide

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A digital divide refers to the gap between demographics and regions that have access to modern information and information technology, and those that do not have access or have restricted access. This division can be further characterized by three different dimensions explaining the causation of the digital divide:

  • The global divide stems from the different levels of availability of internet access between industrialized countries and underdeveloped countries.
  • The social divide stems from inequalities between people, including differences in the level of income, policies, culture, education, employment, race, and sex.
  • The democratic divide, refers to the divide created between individuals who actively choose to not participate in the use of digital resources, and those who choose to do so.[1]

The uneven distribution in access to technology favors certain groups more than others, usually of whom reside in developed demographic areas and have higher socioeconomic statuses. By definition, the digital divide creates barriers to the use of technology in which those with no access cannot use nor benefit from information online and the offerings of the internet. This technological gap between people with and without access exists both within and across countries. The latter is referred to as the global digital divide.

There are a number of ethical issues stemming from the digital divide. Most notably concerns over the socioeconomic gap as well as disadvantages in the job market.


History and usage

The concept of the digital divide was first introduced in 1995, at a time when merely 8% of the United States' population had access to the internet, either in the home or at work. The term's first occurrences in newspapers in the late '90s were characterized by unequal access [2]. Since then, its definition and application have evolved to more closely reference the gap in efficient or faster broadband network access more so than access to a computer. With the growing proliferation of technology throughout communities across the globe, the concept of the digital divide is no longer focused merely on access; in fact, the gap in access is narrowing tremendously [3]. Today's mobile revolution has enabled people to be more connected than ever, and with greater universal access to the internet, the digital divide is now categorized less by a gap in physical access and more by a gap in digital literacy and technological savviness [4].

Disparities in access and technological ability are commonly categorized in terms of developed versus underdeveloped countries, communities of higher socioeconomic status versus lower socioeconomic status, and rural versus urban areas. The definition of the digital divide may differ depending on which of these categories a person is comparing across. For instance, a gap in skills can be attributed to differences in socioeconomic status while a gap in access can be attributed to whether one lives in a rural or urban area, as urban areas offer more widespread access to WiFi. Many individuals may also operate at an intersection of these demographics, resulting in more complicated definitions of digital disparity.

Infrastructure of Connectivity

The ways in which individuals and communities connect to the internet and with one another occur through various technology. This technology includes: laptops, computers, mobile devices including smartphones, gaming devices such as Xbox and PlayStation, and even music devices such as iPods. The varying technology that allows users to connect has shifted the way in which the digital-divide is measured. Measuring the existing number of subscriptions and digital devices provides inaccurate results since many people that own laptops also own mobile phones. Instead a measure of the amount of kilobits per second is recorded. This measures allows a more accurate comparison between regions through the amount of kilobits that are used on average.

Factors Affecting Digital Divide

Global Disparities

The global digital divide describes global disparities between developed and developing countries. In this case, the digital divide does not refer to the idea that some people have access to technology while others don't, but it refers to the concept that many countries across the globe have differences in technology entirely and that technology has developed unevenly across the globe. In more developed countries, high-quality and fast running computers are easily accessible while in others, the technology isn't as advanced. Specifically with the distribution of telecommunication bandwidth - in 2014, the U.S, China, and Japan hosted 50% of the globally installed bandwidth potential.[5] These global disparities contribute to the smaller scale digital divides as access to more advanced technology correlates to higher education, and higher wages. [6]


As the level of education increases in certain communities, other communities tend to get left behind at the same or possibly lower level of education; this results in the educated communities getting access to resources, such as internet access, books and networks that others do not. The level of education also often interacts with the level of training or instruction regarding the resources. An educational system having the physical resources does not necessarily mean they also possess the human resources of educators who can teach and guide others in utilizing this technology. These factors play a role in widening the digital divide.


Disparity in income has only gone up over the past few years, and this translates into the richer communities being able to afford the latest and most hi-tech technologies that the market has to offer while the lower-income communities stagnate in their technological resources. In the past decade, there has been an influx of new tools and products help increase productivity. Paid subscriptions to online learning platforms are also improved by these new and existing technologies. Infrastructure in rural areas has not seen improvement while urban infrastructure has continued to improve every year. The cost of accessing these resources has also been constantly increasing, meaning that only the small percentage of people who's income has grown at the same rate or higher can afford to utilize them. These changes continue to separate the economic classes and widen the digital gap.[7]


Even in countries with the highest amount of digital users, there is a distinct gap in amount of users by age. Popularization of digital technology is a recent trend that has occurred for the past 30-40 years. Many older adults have spent much of their lives not having access to the technology that is readily available today. This lack of access has caused individuals of older generations to not rely on technology as much as the younger generation does. In the United States, 44% of individuals above the age of 65 do not "go-online" or take advantage of digital devices whereas only 2% of individuals between the age of 18-29 do not. [8]

Accessibility issues also contribute to the age discrepancy in technology users. Much of newer technologies are not designed with older generations in mind. Age-related impairments, such as vision and hearing issues or decreased physical ability, make operating and navigating most websites or tech products very difficult for many users, which can further deter use in older generations. With decreased use in informational digital resources in these populations, can lead to a wider digital divide.[9]

Ethical Implications

When categorizing the digital divide by a lack of access or a lack of skills, both categories raise ethical questions regarding the disadvantages faced by those who are underprivileged. In today's information age, it’s no longer considered a luxury to participate in the technological revolution; rather, to keep up in business and in society, using the internet has become a basic human necessity [10] along with food, water, and shelter. The term that has arisen that describes this necessity of internet is "Technological determinism." Technological determinism is better explained as the impact on "behavior and social development" that not having access to technology produces. [11]

Socioeconomic Gap

The digital divide is causing individuals from underprivileged groups, including those with low socioeconomic statuses, developing countries, and minority races, to lag even further behind because of the correlations between economic growth and the adoption rate of new technological innovations for increased productivity.[12][13]. Developing countries and those of low socioeconomic status are growing digitally disadvantaged because of the slow adoption rates of technological development which can be directly related to the current political environment and socioeconomic factors attributing to this disparity which is negatively impacts the ability to succeed in areas such as education and business.[14]

Disadvantage in the Job Market

As technological industries continue to grow among world markets, technological competency will be one of the many skills that will set qualified members of the workforce apart from less technologically-skilled workers. Moreover, education in computer science and technology will become increasingly more predictive in determining the populations of individuals who will be equipped with the necessary skills to meet these demands. Due to the high cost that is often associated with providing students with up-to-date technology, less affluent communities may be at a disadvantage when it comes to providing the necessary educational resources to prepare their students for careers in technology and beyond. As a result, digital divides between affluent and non-affluent individuals among countries may continue to widen, and ultimately have significant implications on socioeconomic circumstances among select communities. [15]

Unfairness in School Systems

A video made by Verizon title "Without a Net: The Digital Divide in America" portrays the technological inequalities in schooling systems. It compares Penn Wood High School, one that is lacking in technology and unable to afford technology centered classes, to Lower Marion High School, a school with robotics courses, a technology club, aerospace engineering courses, and coding classes. One student from Penn Wood High School was quoted saying "We could have the chance to excel like other people in other places and schools if we had the technology," while a student at Lower Marion High School stated "If I were to imagine a school with no technology that would be a very different education; our hopes for the future are very much technology dependent so we would have totally different aspirations and dreams" [16].

This same video describes the three aspects of the educational technological divide. The first concept mentioned that would bridge the technological inequality in schools is devices. Many schools are forced to share computers amongst students which limits the amount of time students have with the devices and makes it difficult for students to become fully knowledgeable regarding how to use that technology. Some schools do not have computers, which makes it incredibly difficult for teachers to teach students about computer-related topics. The second contributor to this divide is connectivity, or the lack thereof. The video describes connectivity as the running water of a school. Teachers are unable to engage students with the lessons they have planned online if their students do not have access to an online connection. Because "having great connectivity in the classroom costs a lot of money, 23% of school districts do not have sufficient bandwidth to meet the current needs for digital learning" [17]. The last factor this particular video mentions as a contributor to the divide is insufficient teacher training on how to use such technological devices. Teachers are being given inadequate training on the know-how and practices of technology and, as a result, "60% of teachers feel as though they are inadequately prepared to use technology in the classroom" [18].


One of the major factors to the gap in information and communication technology across different groups is the design of said technology. As Mark Warschauer's study in Egypt showed, looking to lessen the gap by supplying more computers and increasing internet access, without considering the unique contexts and uses for devices is not effective.[11] Installing equipment and multimedia rooms not designed for the community in Egypt was unproductive. Further, it exposed biases in the design of the technology. According to Philip Brey's "Values in technology and disclosive computer ethics," there are embedded values in the creation of any technology and these values influencing the design can the lead to different types of biases.[19] The designers of the technology are not always aware of the embedded values/biases, but that does not mean they do not have an impact on users. In the case of Egypt, the type of bias would be emergent bias which occurs when devices are used outside of the contexts that the designer had in mind. In this context, the technology did not support the needs or ambitions of the community which were not reflected by the designer. The alternative is to use value sensitive design that considers these values held within a group before integrating more technology in efforts of lessening the digital divide.[20]

Solutions to overcome the digital divide

Strong measures are being taken to narrow the digital divide and diffuse technology more evenly across the globe. Political institutions exert a powerful influence in this area, as they can enact policies to promote the spread of the internet [14]. Data from nearly 200 countries show that a country's regime type matters greatly, even when controlling for other economic and sociological factors. Specifically, democratic governments facilitate the spread of technology, and therefore the spread of democracy can help reduce the digital divide [14]. Despite the fact that more technology is being implemented into poorer countries, it is still important to recognize that this does not directly mean that there will be less of a technology divide. It takes much more than just putting the technology there to change how societies function surrounding technology [11]

Free Basics

Free Basics is an app developed by Facebook that allows users to access social media for free where internet is not easily accessible. This program was rolled out with the intention of bringing the world of the internet to remote and developing countries to enable users to have transparent access to the world of information. The mobile app would give users access to a small selection of websites and services and can be browsers without having to pay for any mobile data[21]. The app is full of apps and relies on the search engine Bing. Facebook argues that limited internet access is better than none, however, users are only seeing the information that is provided to them meaning that this information can easily be biased and the users won't know because they don't have access to outside resources. Facebook’s argument is that limited internet access is better than none, and it’s connecting those who live in rural or impoverished areas in need. There has been a backlash against Free Basics claiming it is "digital colonialism" because Facebook controls Africa's internet access and the content they see[21].

The Role of The Educational System

The education sector is a leading force in taking measures to bridge the digital divide. As increasing functionalities of technologies are raising the bar in learning, communication, collaboration and creativity, school curriculum is becoming more centered on Web 2.0 tools [22].

In the United states, focus on alleviating the digital divide has quickly become a top priority in the educational department, and the government at large. Currently, the U.S. ranks 54th in the world in terms of percentage of population actively using the internet[23]. This ranking has brought about pressure on the U.S. educational system to ensure children and teens are taught proper computer education. The way to assure proper education is hotly debated, Paulina Haselhorst argues that quality computer labs in middle and highschools are no longer sufficient[24], instead of having students attend computer classes once or twice a week, it's important for teachers to implement computer-based teaching regularly[24]. Several programs aimed at connecting U.S. students have received federal support, including ConnectEd, Project L.I.F.T., and Digital Inclusion Fellowship. These programs aim at alleviating symptoms of the digital divide in lower-income and under-funded schools, achieving great success in initial results[25]. Common ways to increase school funding to decrease the digital divide include, reprioritizing existing funds, procure government funding and fundraising. [26]

One Laptop per Child is an initiative to bring laptops to children in developing countries in order to facilitate their education. The aim of this program is to give these children the tools to learn independently and to connect to the outside world.[27]


Unfortunately, simply increasing the presence of computers does not necessarily result in a decrease in the digital divide[11]. This issue requires progress in many areas, including design that addresses the various users and contexts for technologies. One example, Human-Computer Interaction (HCI), studies the design and use of computer interfaces as well as the needs of users. HCI falls at the intersection of many different fields (computer science, design, psychology, etc.) focusing on computer interfaces along with how users interact with them and how they are designed to fit these interactions[28]. Much of HCI works towards lessening friction in computing access and use, which remains an obstacle in narrowing the digital divide. Increasing access to computers that are not fit to a community or user base may not be an effective bridge for the digital divide. However, implementing designs that look at significant factors like cost, connectivity, disabilities, and many others represents one approach to decreasing the divide[29].


The Un-Divide

The term the digital divide has faced some criticism by experts in the field. One comment is that the phrase digital divide suggests a direct split in connectivity between those who have it and those who do not. Mark Warschauer argues that the digital divide is closer to a continuum and thinking of it as such comes closer to recognizing the "social resources that diverse groups bring to the table"[11].

Not Digital

Some viewpoints see the term digital divide as misrepresenting the gap in information technology. It is not necessarily a digital issue, but it is perhaps other factors that require attention.


One view is that the problem is not as much digital in the sense of increasing the presence of digital technologies, but rather improving media education[30]. The base of the issue can be seen as a gap in literacy for using communication technologies.


Another criticism of the term digital divide is that the real problem has little to do with the digital aspects and more to do with the social aspects. This view of the gap in access to information technology sees it as stemming from political, economic, institutional, cultural, and linguistic backgrounds changing the usage and meaning of technology[11]. Merely increasing access to the Internet will not solve the problem on its own. Considering these different backgrounds and the social factors for information technology is, however, necessary in closing the gap.

See Also


  1. Norris, Pippa. Digital Divide: Civic Engagement, Information Poverty, and the Internet Worldwide. Cambridge Univ. Press, 2008.
  2. Steyaert, et al. “Social Work and the Changing Face of the Digital Divide.” OUP Academic, Oxford University Press, 23 Feb. 2009,
  3. Barr, Philippa Nicole. “The Digital Divide Is Narrowing but More Needs to Be Done.” The Conversation, 28 Mar. 2019,
  4. Van Dijk, Jan A.G.M. “The Evolution of the Digital Divide The Digital Divide Turns to Inequality of Skills and Usage.” Digital Enlightenment Yearbook 2012, 2012.
  5. Hilbert, Martin, IEEE XPLORE, Taking the Measure of National Bandwidths: Evolving Patterns of the International Digital Divide for 1986-2013,, 10 March 2016
  6. The Digital Divide. Net Neutrality and the Digital Divide Ch.9 Penn State University.
  7. Anderson, Monica "Digital divide persists even as lower-income Americans make gains in tech adoption"
  8. "Who's not online: 5 factors contributing to digital-divide". 8 November, 2013.
  9. gettecla, What is the Digital Divide and How Does it Affect People with Disabilities?,
  10. Global Study Stresses Importance of Public Internet Access.” UW News,
  11. 11.0 11.1 11.2 11.3 11.4 11.5 Mark Warschauer. "Dissecting the "Digital Divide": A Case Study in Egypt. 2003.
  12. Digital Divide.” The Digital Divide,
  13. Parente, Stephen L., & Prescott, Edward C. (2002). Barrier to riches. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
  14. 14.0 14.1 14.2 Soltan, Liz. “Digital Divide: The Technology Gap between the Rich and Poor.” Digital Responsibility,
  15. Poor Students Face Digital Divide in How Teachers Learn to Use Tech, Herold", Benjamin, June 15, 2017
  16. Verizon. Without a Net: The Digital Divide in America. YouTube, Verizon, 21 April. 2018,
  17. Verizon. Without a Net: The Digital Divide in America. YouTube, Verizon, 21 April. 2018,
  18. Verizon. Without a Net: The Digital Divide in America. YouTube, Verizon, 21 April. 2018,
  19. Brey, Philip, "Values in technology and disclosive computer ethics", Edited by Luciano Floridi, University of Hertfordshire, pp. 41-58, 2010.
  20. Friedman, Batya, Peter H. Kahn, and Alan Borning. "Value sensitive design and information systems." The handbook of information and computer ethics pp. 69-101, 2008.
  21. 21.0 21.1 Solon, Olivia. “'It's Digital Colonialism': How Facebook's Free Internet Service Has Failed Its Users.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 27 July 2017,
  22. Chelliah, John, and Elizabeth Clarke. “Collaborative Teaching and Learning: Overcoming the Digital Divide?” On the Horizon,
  23. List of Countries by Number of Internet Users.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 1 Apr. 2019,
  24. 24.0 24.1 Haselhorst, Paulina. “Bridging the Digital Divide.” Center for Digital Ethics & Policy, 18 Nov. 2015,
  25. Blair, Cassie. “Home.” NTEN, 9 Aug. 2018,
  26. O'Donnell, Alina. "Overcoming the Digital Divide, Step One: Increasing Funding for Technology and Internet Access." 21 Aug 2017. Literacy Daily.
  27. [1]
  28. Lazar, Johnathon; Feng, Jinjuan; Hochheiser, Harry. Research Methods in Computer-Human Interaction (2nd ed.), Morgan Kaufmann Publishers, 2017
  29. Tucker, William. “Connecting Bridges across the Digital Divide”, CHI EA, 2004, 1039-1040
  30. Tyner, Kathleen. Literacy in a Digital World: Teaching and Learning in the Age of Information, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1998.