Vulnerable Aussies suffering from digital inequality
26 October 2020 at 6:00 pm
A new report says COVID-19 has underlined the critical importance of digital inclusion in Australia
Many older and low-income Australians are missing out on the benefits of being online, putting them at greater risk of social isolation amid COVID-19 restrictions, new research shows.
The 2020 Australian Digital Inclusion Index (ADII) found that the rapid acceleration of the digital economy has occurred while some people still face real barriers to getting online.
The annual study – 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.
It found Australians with lower levels of income, employment, and education were significantly less digitally included – signifying a substantial digital divide between richer and poorer Australians.
Researcher Dr Chris Wilson told Pro Bono News that while the overall level of digital inclusion has improved, the rate at which that improvement has occurred this year has slowed slightly.
He said under COVID-19, there has been a fairly rapid and expansive transformation of economic services and social practices into the online space.
“This has helped many Australians to cushion the blow of COVID-19,” Wilson said.
“But [there is] a whole range of people that the index identifies as more likely to be missing out on the benefits of this digital transformation.”
People aged 65 and above remain Australia’s least digitally included age group, which the report said was of major concern given the high prevalence of older Australians living alone.
Older Australians who are digitally excluded are also at high risk of social isolation during COVID given they need to be particularly vigilant in reducing their physical social contact.
Telstra group executive Lyndall Stoyles said there were still too many Australians facing real barriers to online participation.
“Those most vulnerable to COVID-19 are also most likely to be digitally excluded and with that comes very real health and mental health risks,” Stoyles said.
For those on low incomes, the report noted that affordability remains a key challenge.
People in the lowest income bracket have seen their proportion of household income spent on internet services rise year on year, up to more than 4 per cent.
Researchers also found that Indigenous people living in urban and regional areas have relatively low digital inclusion, with progress in this area stalling over the past year.
Distinguished Professor Jo Barraket, the director of the Centre for Social Impact Swinburne, said the events of 2020 have shone a light on how vital digital inclusion is.
“It’s more important than ever that people who typically experience barriers to inclusion are better supported to participate through affordable and accessible technologies and the abilities to use these well,” Barraket said.
Wilson noted there were a range of programs tackling digital inclusion being run by commercial organisations, not for profits, and governments.
“But one thing we haven’t really seen is a coordinated approach to this,” he said.
“And I think that’s where the real need is. We need a whole-of-government approach, an overall strategy for addressing what has been a fairly intractable issue.”