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IQ and Digital Inequality

Cognitive intelligence is rarely discussed in the context of digital inequality for practical and normative reasons: substantial difficulties around measurements and the fact that it cannot (easily) be changed. In a recent article published in New Media and Society, cognitive intelligence is studied in relation to Resources and Appropriation Theory which explains digital inequality as a process of four successive phases of Internet access: motivational, material, skills, and usage. For the measurement of cognitive intelligence, we build on considerable efforts devoted to developing alternatives to cumbersome IQ tests of intelligence. We conducted a two-wave online survey in the Netherlands, resulting in a sample of 1,733 respondents. 

The importance of IQ was confirmed with direct positive effects on education, on economic, social, and cultural resources, and on Internet attitude and Internet skills. As internet appropriation runs from Internet attitude, material access, Internet skills and Internet uses to achieving tangible outcomes, IQ stands at the beginning of the Internet appropriation process. The results as presented reveal several details that can enhance our understanding of the specific mechanisms through which IQ and education operate in digital inequalities.

Both IQ and education revealed positive effects on resources. Education has a stronger effect on economic resources. Education adds skills – such as development of job-relevant knowledge, – that are valued in the marketplace and result in better job performance and wages. Those with higher IQ scores will have an increased likelihood of receiving higher education and by this mediating manner also have greater job relevant knowledge. Economic resources in turn primarily effect Internet attitudes and material access, or the number of devices an individual can afford to establish an Internet connection. For obtaining social resources, IQ appears to have a stronger contribution than education. This is somewhat unexpected as we considered IQ as a fundamental cognitive variable, while education is considered as a social process of acquiring knowledge, skills, values, morals, beliefs, and habits. One explanation might be that those with higher IQ better understand the opportunities arising from social interactions. Social resources support the establishment of positive attitudes and the development of skills as people require a particular network that motivates or forces them to learn specific skills. The effect of IQ and education on cultural resources is comparable. Education is an important vehicle to transfer cultural advantage and be exposed to a variety of arts. An explanation for the role of IQ might be found in the IQ measures used in this study. These, to some extent, reflect individuals’ tastes and media consumption. Cultural resources were found to contribute to material and usage access. We measured cultural resources as participation in culture-oriented leisure activities. This is likely to be reflected in the number of activities performed online, and also in the devices used to access the Internet.

The results revealed that IQ has a strong direct positive effect on attitudes towards the internet, and a direct negative effect on material and usage Internet access. These negative effects are somewhat unexpected. An explanation might be that higher IQ makes people more critical in purchasing technology and in its use. Prior research (that did not consider IQ measures) found that educational level of attainment has a positive effect on being critical and considerate in using certain devices and online applications (Scheerder et al., 2019). Our findings might indicate that IQ plays a substantial role in this matter. The indirect effects of IQ (through education and resources) on material and usage access, however, are positive, making the overall effects very small. As a result, IQ seems to mainly shape digital inequalities through attitudinal and skills access, as both access types have a significant impact on outcomes. Unlike IQ, education has a strong positive effect on material and usage access and has a greater overall impact on Internet outcomes as compared to IQ. This would suggest that education introduces (or encourages) people to a larger variety of devices to go online and a larger variety of online activities. In any way, to further unravel the exact mechanisms at play here, digital inequality research will benefit from further qualifying or reconsidering the concepts and influence of education by also accounting for intelligence.

Policy directions

The results show that IQ cannot simply be neglected as digital inequalities relate to this inherent endogenous and partly innate trait. While altering a fundamental cognitive variable is extremely difficult, seriously considering digital inequality research does suggest that we place more emphasis on differences in cognitive intelligence. The internet environment is characterized by increasing complexity and options, characteristics that place a major premium on cognitive intelligence. If more research would address the cognitive demands of Internet use, we might better determine how to structure the online environment, deliver better services, or provide better instructions. This may ease the burdens of complexity and promote wiser choices.

The level of IQ is determined by innate abilities and wide-ranging, societal and historical contexts (Flynn, 2009). This suggests that fairly traditional educational and economic, social, and cultural policies adapted to the digital realm have to step in. Education might not improve IQ levels in a short term but it can compensate for a relatively low level of IQ, in this case by extending knowledge about digital media and improving digital skills. For instance, both positive and negative effects of the Internet and their reinforcement or compensation required can be discussed in schools at every level. This will improve Internet attitude and subsequent phases of Internet appropriation. Economic, social, and cultural policies of the government and public and private organizations, both national and local, can support the (economic, social, and cultural) acquisition of resources that are needed to the appropriation of the Internet as observed in this contribution. One of the most important educational and cultural policies in this context is the priority to improve the level of all types of reading (see the proxy items for IQ used in this study). This has become an essential educational priority in our digital and visual culture.

Furthermore, a suitable approach is needed to help people with lower IQ to learn digital skills and use the Internet following their own needs instead of those of their educators or service providers. Currently, the Internet is not adapted to their abilities. Improved Internet accessibility and usability and a better understanding of designs and interfaces can support those with lower levels of intelligence (and education). Another way of support is supervision when using the Internet. Typically, in cases when those of low cognitive ability are trained in using digital media, they often are ‘infantilized’ and considered as unable to understand or deal with this technology. Instead, teachers should give more trust and focus on the preferences and skills already present. Other possibilities will emerge with more augmentation of Internet technologies with capabilities to be adaptive and to proactively learn about users and their requirements, providing projective guidance and support.

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