A significant proportion of the global population still lacks the most basic access to the digital world – a predicament known as the ‘digital divide’. This invisible chasm not only separates those with internet access from those without, but it also distinguishes between digital skills, literacy, and the capacity to exploit the potential of digital technologies fully.
As a technology-forward company, we believe it’s essential to understand and work towards closing this divide. The digital divide can be defined across three dimensions: access, usage, and digital skills. These aspects each play a critical role in determining the breadth and depth of the divide, making it a multidimensional issue.
Understanding the digital divide
Access: The first and most fundamental aspect of the digital divide is access – who has the ability to connect to the internet and who doesn’t. According to Statista1, as of July 2023, there are 5.18 billion internet users worldwide, which means that more than a third of the global population, around 35%, not having access to the internet. Not surprisingly, this disparity in access is not spread equally across the globe. Low-income communities, rural areas, and marginalized groups are significantly more likely to lack internet access. In particular, Southern and Eastern Asia, and Africa are the regions where a major portion of the offline population resides. It is also important to recognise that the digital divide is not just about geography but intersects with other social divides, such as gender. According to the International Telecommunication Union2, globally, the internet user gender gap was 8% in 2022, with a majority of unconnected women in Least Developed Countries (LDCs).
Usage: While access is a fundamental starting point, usage and digital skills are essential aspects that determine the depth of the digital divide. The ability to utilize the internet effectively goes beyond just having a connection. It necessitates a certain level of proficiency and understanding to exploit the full potential of digital technologies. Usage of the internet is not a uniform experience. Some people may only use the internet for basic tasks like browsing, social networking, or emailing. In contrast, others use it for more complex activities like content creation, online learning or remote work. This usage gap suggests that having access to the internet doesn't automatically translate into meaningful participation in the digital world.
Digital Skills: On the other hand, digital skills encompass the abilities required to navigate the digital landscape safely and effectively. It involves understanding how to use digital tools, recognizing and protecting oneself from online threats, discerning credible from non-credible sources, and even creating and managing digital content. These skills are increasingly becoming non-negotiable in today's technology-driven world. Unfortunately, many individuals, particularly in marginalized groups, often lack these skills due to various barriers, including lack of education, training, or resources.
The usage and digital skills gap has been analysed by the Pew Research Centre3, which defines it as ‘digital readiness’. Digital readiness refers to the capacity to use digital tools effectively, a concept that encapsulates both usage and digital skills. According to their research, digital readiness is far from universal and tends to vary significantly based on factors such as age, education, and socio-economic status. The digital readiness gap exacerbates the digital divide by further limiting the ability of these social groups to fully participate in and benefit from the digital world, even if they have access, and as such, it should be considered in the efforts of bridging the digital divide.
The Social Impact of the Digital Divide
The digital divide has far-reaching social implications that extend beyond the realm of technology. The digital world has become an integral part of our lives, playing a crucial role in how we learn, work, communicate, and engage with our communities. Therefore, when a significant portion of the population lacks access, or the digital readiness, to engage with this digital world, it can lead to profound social inequalities.
Education is one area where the digital divide has been particularly visible and exacerbated by the covid-19 pandemic.
With the advent of online learning, students without internet access or necessary digital skills are at a significant disadvantage. A case study4 from the Tamil Nadu state in India shows the difficulties in making online education inclusive with 91% of students who do not have access to a computer with internet.
Similarly, in the job market, digital skills have become increasingly crucial. Many jobs, even those not traditionally associated with technology, now require some level of digital proficiency. A recent Amazon and Gallup report5 found out that digital skills not only allow access to higher income opportunities, but also higher job satisfaction contributing to a better quality of life overall.
Finally, the digital divide can also have implications for social and civic engagement. As more and more civic activities, from accessing public services to participating in political discourse, move online, those on the wrong side of the digital divide can find themselves increasingly marginalized. An example of how digital skills can enhance civic engagement is found in Nordic schools. A study highlights how teaching students to use social media responsibly can foster digital citizenship and civic engagement. Such examples underscore the potential of digital literacy as a tool for empowering individuals and communities, and they illustrate why efforts to bridge the digital divide must also address digital readiness.
As we move forward in the digital age, it's critical to ensure that nobody is left behind. So, what can tech companies, TES and our client partners do to bridge the digital divide?
The Role of Tech Companies in Bridging the Divide
Tech companies are at the forefront of our digital world, and as such, they can play a significant role in promoting digital inclusivity. The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP)6 has set forth a Digital Strategy and Standards aimed at promoting inclusive digital technologies. A key principle of this strategy is "Design with the User" - an approach that emphasizes the need to understand and cater to the needs of all users, particularly those who are most vulnerable to the digital divide.
Incorporating this principle into their strategies allows tech companies to ensure their products and services are accessible and usable to the widest possible audience, which includes people of all ages, abilities, and socio-economic backgrounds. Tech and ITAD companies, as TES and our partners and customers, also have a significant influence in shaping policies that can promote digital inclusion. By actively advocating for these policies and collaborating with policymakers, we can help create a more inclusive digital landscape. Moreover, we make a tangible impact by supporting initiatives that promote digital literacy. By contributing resources, expertise, and funding towards these initiatives, we can help equip individuals with the skills needed to navigate the digital world.
At TES we are doing our part to tackle the digital divide directly.
Sustainable development is about ensuring that the future needs of people and the planet are not jeopardised by the actions we take today. The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) provide a critical reference point against which we measure the actions we’re taking to ensure we continue to be relevant to – and have a positive impact on – what we touch and those we influence. We have identified 8 SDGs that particularly resonation with our objectives, capabilities, and ambitions and which we are focussing on to sustain tomorrow. These include SDG 4, Quality Education for all.
The recovery and reuse of IT equipment is an important contributor to providing affordable IT to all. At TES we have a mission to make a decade of difference to securely and safely transform 1,000,000,000 kilograms of assets by 2030. In 2022, our second mission year, we repurposed 106,391 metric tonnes of assets, this translates to over 3 million assets.
In recent years, we have donated refurbished laptops to communities that need them most, such as the Irvine Youth Forum in Scotland and underserved communities in Sri Lanka, and in partnership with LiteHaus, we helped the digitally disadvantaged and those in rural and remote areas of Australia. But our responsibility extends beyond donations. We aim to foster digital literacy by ensuring that our contributions are paired with necessary resources and training, helping recipients navigate the digital world effectively.
We must remember, though, that there is always more to be done and we invite our partners and customers to join us in this cause. Each of us has the power to make a difference. We can all play our part in bridging the digital divide. And as we move forward in the digital age, we must ensure that no one is left behind. Together, we can foster a future that's digitally inclusive.
To find out more about TES’s actions to bridge the digital divide, download our latest Sustainability Report.