The 2020 Australian Digital Inclusion Index has been released and shows a high level of digital inequality in Australia, with many groups continuing to miss out on the benefits of being connected through the internet.

Published by Telstra, RMIT and Swinburne University, the annual report provides a snapshot of Australians’ online participation using the measures of access, affordability and digital ability.

But the 2020 report is like no other, focusing on digital connectivity at a time when the COVID-19 pandemic has separated so many of us.

While there was some improvement in some areas, the report also reveals the rate of improvement has slowed.

Telstra Group Executive, Lyndall Stoyles, said the digital inequality highlighted in the report is made more pronounced by the social and economic impact of COVID-19 and steps will need to be taken to ensure that those facing financial hardship do not fall into the digital divide.

“The impact of COVID-19, with its shutdown of schools, services and social facilities, has accelerated the shift to digital alternatives and, while that brings benefit to many, there are still too many Australians facing real barriers to online participation,” Ms Stoyles said.

Education could be permanently affected

Detailed in the report is COVID-19’s impact on students in low-income family households, finding it’s been highly disruptive.

Australia has just under 4 million primary and secondary school students with about 800,000 from households with a yearly income under $35,000.

These households record an Index score more than ten points below the national average and 15.5 points lower than families with school-aged children in other income brackets.

They often lack access to technology options and suitable devices, pay a larger proportion of their household income for digital services and have lower digital skills.

Ms Stoyles said given COVID-19 forced periods of home learning for many students, the implications of the report are troubling.

“There is a concern if these students do not get immediate and significant support, their education could be permanently affected,” Ms Stoyles said.

Lead researcher Distinguished Professor, Julian Thomas, from RMIT’s Digital Ethnography Research Centre, said the pandemic has underlined the importance of digital inclusion.

“This report shows that more work is urgently needed to ensure that all Australians can benefit from the digital economy,” Mr Thomas said.

Older Australians face social isolation and loneliness

The report found people aged over 65 are one of the least digitally included groups in Australia.

Many older Australians are not online at all, while those that are report lower levels of effective and affordable internet access and digital skills.

Older Australians are less able to use the internet as an alternative to in-person social interactions – putting them at a greater risk of social isolation and loneliness, especially during the pandemic.

Although not the only digitally excluded group in this situation, two factors may further exacerbate the risks confronting older Australians.

First, older Australians are much more likely to live alone and thereby rely on the types of public social contact restricted by the COVID-19 measures.

Second, because of their heightened vulnerability to COVID-19, this cohort has been encouraged to be particularly vigilant in reducing their physical social contact.

Professor Jo Barraket from the Centre for Social Impact Swinburne said the events of 2020 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,”  Prof Barraket said.

Also outlined in the ADII report:

  • Improvements in access have slowed. While most Australians are now online, there are still 2.5 million who don’t access the internet. Convincing this group to get online is a key challenge.
  • Affordability remains a key challenge. For those living in the lowest income quintiles, the per cent of household income spent on internet services has increased year-on-year and now exceeds 4 per cent.
  • There remain significant attitudinal barriers to effective participation on the internet. While COVID-19 restrictions may have made the benefits of digital technologies more obvious, it is important to address the anxieties or scepticism that many Australians have about using digital technologies.

Read the full report, which was also produced in partnership with Roy Morgan.

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