Gradations in digital inclusion: children, young people and the digital divide.

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Livingstone, Sonia and Helsper, Ellen (2007) Gradations in digital inclusion: children, young people and the digital divide. New media & society, 9 (4). pp. 671-696.

Since both the extent of use and the reasons for low and non-use of the internet vary by age, a different explanation for the digital divide is required for children compared with adults. Looking beyond the idea of a binary divide, we propose instead a continuum of digital inclusion. Gradations in frequency of internet use (from non and low users through to weekly and daily users) are found to map onto a progression in the take-up of online opportunities among young people (from basic through moderate to broad and then all-round users), thus beginning to explain why differences in internet use matter, contributing to inclusion and exclusion. Demographic, use and expertise variables are all shown to play a role in accounting for variations in the breadth and depth of internet use.

  • academic and policy attention has recently addressed the so-called ‘digital divide’, drawing attention to divisions within and across societies according to those that have access to digital technologies (including the internet) and those that do not (Bradbrook & Fisher, 2004; Bromley, 2004; Foley, Alfonso, Brown, & Fisher, 2003; Foley, Alfonso, & Ghani, 2002; Selwyn, 2003, 2004a, 2004b; Warschauer, 2003)

  • most research has focused on adult populations, even though, in recent years, children in Western countries have rapidly gained access to the internet at both school and home, strongly supported by public policy and industry initiatives.
  • Young people’s lives are increasingly mediated by information and communication technologies at home, at school and in the community. Yet little research has addressed inequalities in children and young people’s access to the internet, or the reasons why some of them make low or no use of the internet (although see Broos & Roe, 2003; Clark, 2003; Holloway & Green, 2003).
  • Partly, this is because children are widely perceived to be ‘ahead’, dubbed ‘the internet generation’ or ‘online experts’ - labels they themselves relish, although some have challenged this as a prevailing myth (Facer & Furlong, 2001; Livingstone, Bober, & Helsper, 2004).
  • Does the lack of research mean that children and young people have no difficulties accessing and using the internet or that inequalities do not divide them?

  • public debate and the research agenda have shifted substantially as internet access has become widespread.
  • Technological innovation requires a recurrent rather than a one-off investment of money, time and effort on the part of the general public. In this process, social stratification continues to matter (Golding, 2002; Spears, Postmes, Wobert, Lea, & Rogers, 2000). There is a risk that increasing internet penetration will exacerbate rather than reduce inequalities.
  • digital exclusion is strongly associated with traditional forms of social exclusion - by socio-economic status, region, deprivation, etc (Norris, 2001). The concern, then, is that ‘exclusion from these [internet-mediated economic, social, political, cultural] networks is one of the most damaging forms of exclusion in our economy and in our culture’ (Castells, 2002, p. 3).
  • Thus, it is vital to examine who is or is not using the internet, why and with what consequences (Anderson, 2005; Selwyn, 2003; Warschauer, 2003) and this applies to children no less than to adults.

  • The research task has thus shifted to that of capturing the range and quality of use, transcending simple binaries of access/no-access or use/non-use and tracking shifting ‘degrees of marginality’ in digital inclusion and exclusion (Murdock, 2002, p.387, see also Foley, Alfonso, Brown, & Fisher, 2003).
  • Hargittai (2002) pursued the question of skills, revealing considerable variation in the success of people’s online search strategies.
  • Others have examined strategies for including the digitally excluded (Hellawell, 2001; Livingstone, 2005) or the reasons for non-use (Dutton, Di Genarro, & Millwood Hargrave, 2005; Wyatt, Thomas, & Terranova, 2002).
  • Livingstone, Bober, and Helsper (2004) mapped children and young people’s internet literacy, identifying a range of socio-demographic barriers to and enablers of internet literacy as well as showing how internet literacy mediates the benefits (and the risks) of internet use. For children and young people, it seems, the more literacy, the more opportunities are taken up.
  • Cho, Gil de Zúñiga, Rojas, and Shah (2003) found young, upper class users were more effective in obtaining the gratifications they sought online, while others took indirect or multiple routes to achieve the same end.
  • In the present paper, we focus on inequalities in the take up of online opportunities. We have termed these ‘opportunities’ rather than simply ‘activities’ in order to acknowledge the offline and online structures that may enable or constrain young people’s activities, as an alternative to a more individualistic or motivational account.

Thus we ask the following questions in relation to children and young people: 1. Is there a digital divide among children and young people? If so, what role do age, gender and socioeconomic status (SES) play in access to and use of the internet? 2. Who makes little or no use of the internet and why? 3. Are there gradations in quality of internet use among children and young people and, if so, how can these be explained?

  • As in other developed countries, the findings show that there are very few children who do not use the internet, unlike for their parents and for adults in general, making the simple assertion of a binary divide between haves and have-nots, or users and non- users, no longer applicable to young people. However, this is not to say that issues of access are no longer relevant, for the findings reveal inequalities by age, gender and socioeconomic status in relation to their quality of access to and use of the internet. Boys, older children and middle class children all benefit from more and better quality access to the internet than girls, younger and working class children.