What Is the Digital Divide?

The digital divide refers to the gap between demographics and regions that have access to modern information and communications technology and those that don't have access. Though the term now encompasses the technical and financial ability to utilize available technology—along with access (or lack of access) to the Internet—the gap it refers to is constantly shifting with the development of technology. When the term was first used in the late 20th century, for example, it described the gap between those who had cellphone access and those who did not.

Key Takeaways

  • The digital divide encompasses the technical and financial ability to utilize available technology, along with access (or lack of access) to the Internet.
  • Digital divides exist between developed and developing countries, urban and rural populations, young and educated versus older and less-educated individuals, and men and women.
  • The urban-rural divide is the single biggest factor in the digital divide.
  • The consequences of the digital divide include isolation, which can affect mental health; educational barriers as post-secondary education increasingly moves online; and worsening gender discrimination.
  • The coronavirus pandemic has exposed the differences in digital coverage in the U.S.—for example, among children forced to attend school remotely and in less affluent communities where people have struggled to get vaccination appointments.

Understanding the Digital Divide

The digital divide describes the gap between people who have access to affordable, reliable Internet service (and the skills and gadgets necessary to take advantage of that access)—and those who lack it.

This is an issue within many countries, with rural populations much more likely to be cut off from digital technologies than city residents. The divide also exists between countries and between continents. And it exists between men and women: In 2019, 55% of the global male population was using the Internet, compared to 48% of the female population.

Beyond the gaps between developed and developing countries, rural and urban populations, and men and women, there are three general types of digital divide described in the literature:

  • The access divide—This is the most visible digital divide. It refers to the socioeconomic differences between people, and their impact on people's ability to afford the devices necessary to get online. In developing countries, many people have limited access to technology or the Internet and do not have the skills necessary to use it effectively.
  • The use divide—This refers to the difference in the level of skills possessed by individuals. There is a generation gap when it comes to the skills necessary to use the Internet. It is also affected by the quality of education that an individual receives. Younger, educated people tend to have more skills than older, less educated individuals. 
  • The quality-of-use gap—This measure is a little more complicated. It refers to the different ways that people use the Internet and the fact that some people are far more able to get the information they need from it. 

These gaps in connectivity and skills reflect existing differences in wealth and access to education, as well as gender discrimination. The digital divide also exacerbates these same differences by barring many people from the information necessary to break out of their current living situation.

The global digital divide

For many years, the global digital divide was seen as a consequence of economic development. As countries and individuals became richer, the common expectation was that they would purchase digital devices and infrastructure and the digital divide would close naturally.

Yet incomes have risen around the world over the past two decades, and access to digital services has remained stubbornly low in much of the developing world. In many cases, this is due to a lack of investment in Internet infrastructure—citizens may have Internet-enabled devices, but still no connection to the World Wide Web. The Internet penetration rate still varies widely among continents: In 2020, 94.6% of North Americans had internet access, compared to 39.3% of Africans.

85%

Percentage of the world population projected to be covered by a 4G network by the end of 2020, according to the United Nations International Telecommunication Union.

But those statistics hide a lot of variation within countries and regions. Large countries with ocean borders tend to have much better Internet access, even when they are underdeveloped in other areas. This is why, in 2020, the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), the United Nations agency for information and communication technologies, started to provide statistics on landlocked developing countries and small island developing states based on aggregate statistics in the developing world.

Similarly, there are major disparities in Internet access even within highly developed countries. Many rural Americans are still without adequate Internet access, and still more lack the skills to take full advantage of the access they do have. Indeed, the most accurate predictors of the digital divide are not age or country. They are educational level and the urban-rural divide. According to recent studies, roughly 72% of people living in urban areas globally have Internet access in their homes, compared to less than 40% of those who live in rural areas.

Some analysts fear that, instead of narrowing, the digital divide is getting wider. In addition, some questionable business practices appear to be widening the gap even within developed nations: The ongoing debates about net neutrality and versioning can be seen as issues about equitable access to the digital world.

Consequences of the Digital Divide

Until quite recently, access to the Internet was seen as a luxury, and disparities in digital access were seen in largely the same terms. However, there is now widespread consensus that technological discrimination is a form of social exclusion because it takes essential resources for wealth development away from certain citizens.

This is most visible when one looks at the balance of the world economy, and particularly at the rapid growth in the number of jobs that require digital access and skills. In the U.S., for instance, nearly half of all jobs in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) are in computing. In 2020, there were more than a million unfilled computer science positions. Lack of access to learning these skills is a barrier to these jobs and the income that comes with them.

You don’t have to aspire to a career in tech to be affected by the digital divide, however. The impacts of the phenomenon reach many people, in several important ways:

  • Lack of communication and isolation—The COVID-19 pandemic has brought into sharp focus the isolation that people without Internet access or skills can quickly experience. This can have serious knock-on effects—from not being able to secure appointments for vaccination against the coronavirus to limiting individuals' job prospects and affecting their mental health.
  • Barriers to education—As education is increasingly delivered online, those without the resources to access the Internet, including school kids limited to remote learning during the pandemic, can be cut off from opportunities to develop their skills. As a result, children may have educational gaps, and adults may miss out on job opportunities or be unable to gain the basic skills necessary to contribute to their community.
  • Worsening gender discrimination—As noted above, the digital divide also exacerbates many existing forms of discrimination. One of the most widespread is gender discrimination. Women who lack equal access to the Internet are unable to gain an education or information that could help them challenge (and have a better chance of raising) their status.

As the world becomes increasingly dependent on digital technologies, these consequences are likely to become more serious and widespread. It is incumbent upon societies to address the digital divide in a holistic way that recognizes its many aspects and negative outcomes.

Bridging the Digital Divide

In recent years, programs have been launched that aim to combat particular aspects of the digital divide. Many of these are being coordinated at the highest level, including within the U.N.'s Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 9, which allows individual countries to coordinate their activities toward ending digital discrimination.

Within the developed world, some analysts point to successful 20th-century programs that lifted millions of people out of poverty. One commonly mentioned example is the Rural Electrification Act during the Great Depression, which stands as an example of how the government can help provide technology to underserved areas that private companies don't consider profitable enough to include in their networks.

In addition, the following specific programs have been launched in the past few years to address other aspects of the digital divide:

  • The Alliance for Affordable Internet (A4AI)—aims to reduce the cost of broadband Internet in specific areas in the world.
  • One Laptop per Child (OLPC)—provides very low-cost laptops to children around the globe and offers online educational programs that help them to develop digital skills.
  • Starlink—provides high-speed Internet and global coverage at affordable prices via satellites it has launched into space.

Many countries now also run digital literacy programs aimed at teaching both adults and children the skills necessary to breach the digital divide.