Digital inequality in the Corona crisis

by Alexander van Deursen
(photo credit: Leonhard Foeger/Reuters)

By means of a recent questionnaire among 1,733 respondents of the Dutch population, I investigated the role of the internet during the corona crisis. The use and outcomes of the internet for both corona (Covid-19) related information and communication were the focus. Information needs in the crisis are for example: to know what the virus means, what the symptoms are, and how the disease can be prevented. Furthermore, people want to know which measures are proposed or imposed (and why). All kinds of sites, apps, and social media can be consulted. Potential outcomes of information uses are, for example, reducing the chance of becoming infected or increasing awareness of one's own behavior. Besides information needs, online communication needs are present during the Covid-19 crisis, particularly due to the social distancing measures that have been introduced: to interact with family members and friends, have conversations and discussions about the risks and management of corona, ask questions or give advice on social media, or consult online specialists. Potential outcomes include getting support and advice, sharing concerns about corona and the crisis, or feeling less alone if you are tied to your house as a result of the imposed measures.

Because everyone has to deal with the corona situation, the internet plays a crucial role for people of all social backgrounds. Everyone should be able to use the internet as a source of information and communication. However, if I look at reserach evidence of the past decade, it appears that Internet access (attitude, material access, skills, uses, and outcomes) is not evenly distributed among the population. This also appears to be the case in the corona context. Older people, for example, relatively often look for information about COVID-19, which, due to a shortage of digital skills, does not automatically result in being better informed about corona, or in more awareness of their own behavior. This is worrisome as they are more at risk for serious complications when diagnosed with COVID-19. This also applies to people with physical health problems. Unexpectedly, in the corona crisis, men are more often involved in corona-related communication online (in a normal context this is usually the other way around). One possible explanation is that men and women react to crisis news in different ways. The study also shows that having difficulty reading, writing, and understanding text hinders access to online corona-related information and communication resources. Covid-19 is a new, unknown, and complicated disease with features often described in difficult medical language. A similar conclusion applies to people with a lower level of education.

In addition to these examples, the study shows that a positive internet attitude, access to a greater diversity of internet equipment and a high level of digital skills are extremely important to use the internet for corona-related information and communication. A positive attitude towards the internet plays a role because the internet helps with specific and personal problems or questions, especially when people are at home most of the time. Equipment diversity is important because each device has specific options for informing or allowing a user to communicate (for example, a combination of a desktop computer and a smartphone provides more communication options than when only a desktop computer is used). Digital skills are needed to use the information and communication applications, to find reliable and valid information about the disease, and to communicate about one's own or someone else's findings.

The general conclusion of the study is that people in a better social position, with a more positive attitude, better materials, and better skills, make the most and best use of corona-related internet applications. This gives them access to more information about the disease, they are better informed about the measures that have been implemented and they find more support from others. Conversely, people in a lower social position, with access to less good equipment, and a lower level of digital skills, benefit less. Digital inequality has negative repercussions for dealing with the corona pandemic. Fortunately, resources such as income and having a large social network made little difference. The Netherlands is a rich country with very high internet connection rates (also among people with lower incomes).

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