Slipping through the net

by Peter Griffin / 03 May, 2016
The social costs can be high when children don’t have internet access.
Photo/Getty Images
Photo/Getty Images

They call them the ­“shrinking minority” – the sections of society that for a variety of reasons remain largely offline in an increasingly digital world. For all the government initiatives over the years to bridge the digital divide, from the ultrafast broadband network to digital literacy programmes, 62,000 households with school-age children didn’t have internet access as recently as 2013, according to Census data.

The World Internet Project (WIP) survey released this month by AUT showed that age and household income are the biggest barriers to internet usage in New Zealand. Five per cent of those surveyed never used the internet and 3% counted themselves as ex-users. For the elderly, the internet can be too expensive, confusing to use or just plain irrelevant.

For poor families, the cost of even an entry-level plan for the internet and the devices that connect to it can be prohibitive. Rural families tend to be lower-level users, as broadband access can be patchy. Maori and Pasifika are more likely to be lower-level internet users than Pakeha and Asians. About 60% of those internet-free households were in South Auckland, the Far North, Gisborne and eastern Bay of Plenty.

Jocelyn Williams, below, says children without internet connectivity at home miss out. Photo/Getty Images
Jocelyn Williams, below, says children without internet connectivity at home miss out. Photo/Getty Images

Although the Government has prioritised wiring up schools with fast internet access, many kids can’t connect at home. Most countries face this problem to some degree.

“It’s one thing to wire classrooms; the problem is homes,” said US President Barack Obama in Texas in March at the South by ­Southwest ­conference, the hip arts and tech gathering he skipped Nancy ­Reagan’s funeral to attend. “Part of the problem is that 70% of homework assignments given by teachers require some internet access.”

Jocelyn Williams, head of Unitec’s Department of Communication Studies, also fingers home access as a major problem. “Education now requires with increasing urgency that all students bring their own devices and have internet connectivity at home,” she says. “If they don’t have these things they can’t participate.”

Community efforts such as the Computer Clubhouse and Computers in Homes have done an admirable job of trying to address the digital divide with precious few resources. We also have cheaper devices such as the One Laptop Per Child machines, and schools let families pay for a Chromebook in instalments.

Some enterprising schools are extending free internet access to their communities using wireless networks. In urban areas, kids can usually scratch around to find some free Wi-Fi access, even if it is from the local ­McDonald’s. All this means the picture is improving – the 2006 Census recorded 116,000 households with school-age children without internet access, nearly double the 2013 figure.

If anything, the digital divide is getting more subtle, more insidious. Sure, many kids still can’t get access. Many more have the basic tools to surf the web but are victims of the brutal pace of ­technological change.

The WIP survey revealed that 86% of advanced internet users download apps to their phones or tablets compared with 17% of low-level users. If you don’t have a device that can handle the latest apps, you are cut off from the social and educational world of the smartphone. Wait until the virtual reality wave hits and the price of entry will be a VR headset on top of the cost of a phone.

If kids aren’t accessing technology, they’re socially out of the loop, less confident using it and therefore less likely to pursue the sort of ­know­ledge-economy jobs that have better earning and creative potential.

This is not an insurmountable problem, but it is going to need a more coherent strategy than we have. Schools, community groups, local councils, iwi and businesses need to band together to fill the gaps to improve digital literacy and confidence with technology. And this needs to encompass the young and poor as well as the old and ­disengaged. Otherwise, the costs of being on the wrong side of the digital divide will grow for a small but ­significant portion of society.

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