Digital inclusion: Basic policy principles

by Alexander van Deursen

Each stage of internet access - attitude and motivation, material access, skills and use - plays an important role in achieving positive outcomes. These phases have a sequential and conditional character. This does not mean that the promotion of motivation and the use of sufficient equipment automatically results in a high level of skills. Each phase also depends on a series of (different) indicators that interact with each other in the emergence of digital inequality. The independent effect of these indicators on each stage is shown, for example, by the fact that a high level of skills does not necessarily result in the performance of certain activities. For example, personal interests can cause someone to use the Internet or not for political activities. Personal circumstances, such as a bad financial situation, can also mean that people do not buy products online because they are cheaper than in the physical store (after all, they still need money). Someone with limited qualifications would also be unable to find a job because jobs are simply not available. The sequential and conditional nature of internet access also does not mean that attitude and motivation have the highest priority, material access the second priority and improving digital skills the third priority. It does mean, for example, that skills are insufficiently taught due to a lack of motivation or without suitable equipment to use the internet.

“Policy that combats digital inequality therefore ideally tackles all phases simultaneously.”

Many indicators already play a role at the beginning of the internet access process. The elderly, the less educated, people with a lower income and to a lesser extent women have a lower attitude and motivation, less good equipment for using the internet, a lower level of skills and a more limited use of the internet. Since they are hindered in every phase and these phases have a conditional character, the chance is much smaller for them that the Internet will contribute to an improved position in society.

“Unfortunately, the part of the population that could potentially benefit the most from internet use is in the worst position.”

The less educated or people with a lower income are less likely to achieve outcomes in relation to work or education compared to the highly educated or people from higher income groups (regardless of the level of skills a person possesses). This immediately explains why digital inequality is problematic: the Internet reinforces existing forms of inequality. The more resources a person has at his disposal (for example income, property or a social network), the more the internet yields. The fewer resources available, the smaller the contribution to a person's well-being. People who are already in a vulnerable position are thus further marginalized. The internet rarely comes up in the public debate on inequality. It has not yet become known that the existing inequality is strengthening. Usually the emphasis is on the potential of the internet (and other ICT) to change things, for everyone. The close relationship between traditional and digital inequality implies that interventions that aim to improve internet access must be supported by policies aimed at leveling traditional forms of inequality. However, experience shows that it is much more difficult to combat poverty or a shortage of educated people. Perhaps this is why policies aimed at better internet access - for example, the distribution of tablets among children - are so enthusiastically received.

“To combat digital inequality, researchers and policymakers could take the potential outcomes of internet access as a starting point. The focus should not only be on economically functional, practical and normatively valued forms of internet use, but also attention should be paid to other popular, less normatively valued activities in other domains.”

Interventions should ideally be the first to identify challenges for diverse groups in terms of economic, cultural, social and personal well-being. Subsequently, it can be determined for each of these groups in which phase (s) of internet access - attitude and motivation, material access, skills and use - the greatest obstacles occur. Initiatives that are taken on this basis (for example with the help of organizations that can best reach the identified target groups) should finally be subject to an evaluation. Little information is available on which policy initiatives and interventions have been the most effective and efficient, let alone initiatives that have not produced the desired results.