Examining digital exclusion
The digital divide is often spoken about in terms of numbers - the 2020 Trust estimate that 100,000 school-aged children don't have internet access at home, Internet NZ estimate that 16,000 rural households are missing out. So, it's interesting to read a report that takes a qualitative approach to examining what it means to live offline.
The report Out of the Maze: Building Digitally Inclusive Communities is authored by Marianne Elliot and sponsored by the Vodafone New Zealand Foundation and Internet NZ. Elliot's research focused on the groups considered at risk of missing out on connectivity - young people (16-24), young people with disabilities, migrant and former refugee young people for whom English is a second language, Māori and Pasifika young people, and the parents and caregivers of school-aged children.
"We held discussion groups and interviews in Naenae, Wellington Central, Mangere, Manurewa, Westport and Kawerau. In each of these areas we spoke with young people, parents of school age children, and with social and community workers. In total we heard from 62 people."
Unsurprisingly perhaps, they discovered that the internet is a core part of participant's lives - from social contact education, financial services, and the ability to accessing basic government services. There was high use of social media, with a social worker in Westport explaining how integral it can become to a person's wellbeing.
"[The Internet is] huge for all of my clients, especially those … with social anxiety. They can still be socially connected within the community, and don't have to leave home if they want to. They can still know what's happening in the community and interact."
There were also stories about the negative impact of the internet, for example scamming, hacking and bullying, and the need to equip New Zealanders with the skills and confidence to be safe online.
The barriers to internet access were grouped into six categories - cost, physical access, motivation, skills, capacity, and trust and safety. A discussion around financial barriers highlighted that many people on low incomes move house often and therefore face the extra cost of establishing new internet connections.
"When they talked about the cost of getting online participants talked not only about the cost of monthly Internet connection, but also the cost of having and maintaining a suitable device. They talked about the start-up costs of getting connected - especially to fibre where that was available - and how that might need to be repeated if they had to move houses."
The result of not being connected can have a huge negative impact on families and incomes, as one participant from a Women's refuge explained. "I can't contact my kids, I can't apply for a benefit. I basically can't do anything without it. I feel disempowered."
The report also provides ideas around solving the issues that are identified, and often this comes from participants themselves. For example, a high school student in Mangere suggested that Internet Studies could become a subject in school that teaches young people about how to be safe online. "When asked what he would include in the 'Internet Studies' topic, this participant explained that he was especially interested in programmes to reduce online bullying, by focusing on positive relationships and communication skills."
There is also list of ideas for companies and organisations about how they can help close the digital divide. These include suggestions for policy makers in central government, local government and iwi, communications companies, tech companies, and charitable and philanthropic organisations.
These are well worth a read, you can find the full report here.
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