OLDER people and families without adequate internet access, and vulnerable Australians are among those who have suffered the most isolation during the COVID-19 crisis, a new report has found.
Almost all Australians have the internet available, and most have adapted to pandemic restrictions by changing their habits – from face-to-face to online socialising, shopping, and even attending Mass online.
However more than 2.5 million remain offline, according to a new report measuring the country’s digital divide.
The Australian Digital Inclusion Index – produced by RMIT University’s Digital Ethnography Research Centre and Swinburne University’s Centre for Social Impact in partnership with Telstra – explores digital inclusion in terms of access, affordability and digital ability.
The report said the COVID-19 pandemic had underlined the critical importance of digital inclusion in contemporary Australia.
“With the shutdown of schools, businesses, services, shops and meeting places across the country, the digital transformation of education, government, business and community services has accelerated,” the report said.
“However, the rapid acceleration of the digital economy and society is emerging at a time when some members of the community still face real barriers to online participation.
“The impact of the pandemic has therefore been particularly difficult for some Australians and may have lasting consequences.”
The report found Australians with lower levels of income, employment, and education were significantly less digitally included – reflecting a substantial digital divide between richer and poorer Australians.
COVID-19 has been highly disruptive for students in low-income family households that lack access to technology options and suitable devices, pay more of their household income for digital services than others, and have lower digital skills.
Students from low-income families reported significantly lower scores in digital reading literacy.
These students lacked the more advanced digital skills that would allow them to work in the independent manner that online education during a pandemic requires.
In addition people aged 65 and over remain Australia’s least digitally included age group.
For the elderly, affordability is a barrier to more effective internet access.
The COVID-19 pandemic has reinforced the importance of digital inclusion for social resilience and economic security.
The report said that making full use of digital technologies allowed people to manage their health and wellbeing; access education and services; organise their finances; and connect with friends, family, and the world beyond.
“It goes beyond simply owning a computer or having access to a smartphone,” the report said.
“Social and economic participation lies at the heart of digital inclusion; using online and mobile technologies to improve skills, enhance quality of life, educate, and promote wellbeing, civic engagement and sustainable development across the whole of society.”
The report found that in 2020, culturally and linguistically diverse migrants (defined as people born in non-main English speaking countries and who speak a language other than English at home) have a relatively high level of digital inclusion.
However Australians with disability (defined as receiving disability support pensions) have relatively low digital inclusion.
Queensland ranks fifth out of Australia’s eight states and territories on a digital inclusion index, with those aged 25-34 years the most digitally included age group.
Brisbane ranks second – only behind Sydney – on digital inclusion.
The Sunshine Coast ranks as a rapidly rising digitally included region, reflecting the uptake of NBN services there, while the Gold Coast has made substantial increases in digital inclusion since 2014.
Overall the digital gap between rural and urban Queensland communities has widened slightly since the last study was conducted in 2019.