The digital divide defines the various inequalities in access to information and communication technologies (ICT) and their use. These can be present between two different areas or in the same area, affecting people who are geographically close.
Today, contrary to what one might think, the digital divide is still very much present in our society. This article aims to make you aware of the importance of this phenomenon and the various factors that play a role.
To reinforce our comments, we interviewed Nicolas Neysen, professor at the School of Management of the University of Liège (HEC Liège) and promoter within the HEC Digital Lab, and Olivier Ruol, senior expert in the use of digital technology by citizens of the Digital Agency.
HEC Digital Lab is a service platform within HEC Liège and makes it possible to strengthen cooperation between the various digital players. The aim of this service is to understand the challenges of the digital sector and develop the necessary skills to meet them.
The Digital Agency (AdN), known as an accelerator of the digital transformation of the territory, is a Walloon centre of digital expertise. It creates projects to help citizens looking for digital training.
Evolution of the digital divide
It was in 2006, thanks to a European study, that the term 'digital divide' officially appeared.
The digital divide started in the 1990s and has undergone several developments since then.
First, there's the equipment gap:
In the 1990s, more and more new information and communication technologies (ICT) began to develop.
The digital divide at the time therefore concerned technological equipment such as computers. There was a disparity between people who could afford to own digital technologies and those who could not.
Today, the vast majority of households are sufficiently equipped at this level. In 2021, the figures from the Digital Agency's digital maturity barometer of citizens confirm this trend. 96% of Walloon households are digitally equipped with one or more devices and 94% have an internet connection.
Then the usage gap:
In light of this first evolution, the digital divide has taken on another dimension, one that is intellectual and social rather than material.
We are then talking about a second dimension of the digital divide. In concrete terms, it concerns the use of these technologies. Some people know perfectly how to use this ICT, others can obtain it, but do not know how to make good use of it.
Even though the number of skills is increasing, this gap is still very much present. According to the Digital Agency's barometer of citizens' digital maturity, 33% of Walloons request digital training to improve their skills. And of this 33%, half are young people, which may seem surprising.
In an era where young people are increasingly growing up with digital technology, the gap is not only aimed at the “old” generations, but also at the youngest generations.
Today's young people are considered part of the 'digital generation', those who have grown up with technology and who could therefore use the Internet from a very early age as it is part of their daily lives.
However, there are many among them who do not have access to technologies and/or do not know how to use them. Some feel very comfortable, for example, using a smartphone, but not necessarily with a computer. So they don't always know how to use all the digital tools.
Finally, the trust gap:
This is where a third dimension of the divide is created, which concerns the way people position themselves in relation to the internet and digital technology.
This ranges from digital enthusiasts to the most remote people, with a low skill rate. There are indeed people today who feel alienated from this world due to a real lack of faith in it. And as society becomes increasingly digital, this dimension frightens people who think technology is evolving too quickly.
The causes of the digital divide
The digital divide can arise from the generative, geographical aspect (not everyone is in the same boat, not even in Belgium), but also from the socio-cultural aspect. It occurs in areas of daily life such as banking, healthcare, mutual insurance and other systems. Nowadays it is necessary to have at least one email address to gain access. However, there are people who don't have one or don't know how an email address works and are therefore part of the digital divide. It is therefore important to realize where this gap comes from.
One of the main causes leading to this gap is the lack of education/training. If you provide equipment but do not educate and train people in its proper use, it is useless.
In schools, students learn to use digital tools. For some students, these courses are not always sufficient; it may be necessary for them to undergo additional training if they do not want to end up on the other side of the digital divide.
“Digital natives don't really exist”
Olivier Ruol also notes that 'digital natives', people born in a digital environment and who are expected to know how to use technologies, do not really exist. Even if they say they are “capable” of using these technologies, most of them are likely considered “passive” and not “active.” A passive user is someone who uses the internet, but only for information or, for example, to use an application. An active user, on the other hand, is a person who interacts with the content produced and is able to create something concrete on a computer/tablet/phone.
When we want to move to this second status, we often don't have enough support. And these people are also part of the digital divide because they don't know how to use digital tools to be considered active users.
The digital divide also affects certain public services. They don't always take the time to explain how their services work. “We notice a lack of awareness,” explains Olivier Ruol. Nicolas Neysen also emphasizes the fact that we cannot exclude people from public services; their access must be guaranteed for all categories of the population.
To give you an example, let's take the dematerialization of banks. Nowadays we notice it everywhere: there are fewer and fewer ATMs to withdraw money, we receive fewer and fewer paper letters and there are fewer and fewer shops where cash is accepted. Everything now happens 'online'. “It forced people to use digital tools that they were not trained to use, even if they had never used them before. » underlines Olivier Ruol.
Here's another example: when you go to the city, everything seems to be adapted for people with reduced mobility. But what about people who are victims of the digital divide? As explained earlier, access to a public service must be guaranteed for the entire population and therefore also for people who experience a digital divide. Unfortunately, your municipality may not offer appropriate services and using the website may not be easy or pleasant to use.
If there is a lack of trust in technologies today, these examples show that there is a risk of simultaneously creating a lack of trust in public services.
Above all, they should think about providing clear information and ensuring that there are no digital accessibility issues or that they are minimal.
Solutions to combat the digital divide
Here are several ways to support people affected by the digital divide:
Firstly, individually or as a company, when you put technological equipment in the hands of someone who has never used it before, it is necessary to provide him or her with support and training so that he or she can progress as quickly as possible the best way. If this person decides to explore and learn on their own, it is still important that he or she receives support in the beginning.
It is highly recommended to adapt to all categories of people who are likely to use your services. For example, we only have access to bank accounts via the internet. Many people, however, cannot consult their bank account and therefore cannot see the money they have. It is necessary to offer these people other solutions, whether it is a “step back”, that is, before everything goes digital, or offering a demonstration of the application to be used.
To ensure accessibility, it is a good idea to test the tools with people affected by the gap, to understand what might need to be improved so that everyone can use them correctly. These tools are mainly tested by competent people and they may not realize their complexity. This applies to all companies that offer digital tools to their customers.
We advise you to create an intuitive environment to make access as easy as possible. Why not start with a fairly simple interface first and once your users get used to it, offer new features, always explaining the changes. Nicolas Neysen even imagines an application with different levels of complexity and where the user could choose, according to his needs, what he could do with the application to make the interface more accessible and pleasant to use, without adding a lot of unnecessary functions that would make the app more difficult to use.
And even for that, creating human contact is very important. We live in an age where we meet fewer and fewer people in person and this can cause a lack of trust in public services in particular.
Below you will find advice from our experts:
Nicolas Neysen: “Dare to talk about it with those around you. Your family and friends can help you. Grandchildren can help their grandparents, which also creates a bond.
If you experience problems using public services, you can file a complaint. They may not realize that they are stopping people from using their service digitally. Do not hesitate to make an appointment with your banker so that he can explain to you how to use their tool.
Don't be afraid to take the plunge, buy a smartphone, tablet or computer and use it to familiarize yourself with the tool. Exercise regularly, the more you use these tools, the easier you will be.
HEC Digital Lab offers publications to highlight certain themes, such as responsible digital technology, video capsules and also organizes events such as conferences. The aim is to inform and develop skills.
Olivier Ruol: “Even though you may receive a lot of criticism because you don't know how to use digital tools, don't be ashamed. There are places where you can learn and make progress, such as the Digital Public Space, but there are also people around you who can help you, such as your family, friends, mediators or associations. The Digital Agency (AdN, a Walloon government agency) can really help you on a daily basis and meet your needs. That is why awareness work is necessary."
The Digital Agency uses government instruments to help citizens. They meet people and try to help them as best they can by carrying out awareness-raising or concrete actions that promote digital inclusion.
In particular, our team has developed a user-friendly web platform for AdN. This project aims to reduce the digital divide by enabling citizens to easily find places that can meet their digital needs.
Finally, if we realize that each dimension of the digital divide generates the next, we can say that it is necessary to come up with different solutions to prevent more from being created.
To do this, we suggest that people, government services and businesses going digital communicate regularly with their customers about their digital development to help and support them as needed.
Training is a key element to get out of this situation.
We also encourage people who want to bridge this gap to talk about it with the people around them. After all, there are enough solutions.
Finally, you also need to (dare to) get started and not be afraid to try out digital tools. You can only master them by daring to use them.