Digital divide

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The global digital divide in 2006: Computers per 100 people.

A digital divide is an economic inequality between groups, broadly construed, in terms of access to, use of, or knowledge of information and communication technologies (ICT).[1][2] The divide within countries (such as the digital divide in the United States) can refer to inequalities between individuals, households, businesses, and geographic areas at different socioeconomic and other demographic levels, while[3][4][5] the divide between countries is referred to as the global digital divide, which designates nations as the units of analysis and examines the gap between developing and developed countries on an international scale.[2]


Conceptualization of the digital divide is often as follows:[6][7]

  1. Subjects of connectivity, or who connects: individuals, organizations, enterprises, schools, hospitals, countries, etc.
  2. Characteristics of connectivity, or which attributes: demographic and socio-economic variables, such as income, education, age, geographic location, etc.
  3. Means of connectivity, or connectivity to what: fixed or mobile, Internet or telephony, digital TV, etc.
  4. Intensity of connectivity, or how sophisticated the usage: mere access, retrieval, interactivity, innovative contributions.
  5. Purpose of connectivity, or why individuals and their cohorts are (not) connecting: reasons individuals are and are not online and uses of the Internet and information and communications technologies ("ICTs").
  6. Dynamics of evolution, or whether the gap of concern would increase or decrease in the future, when the gap of concern would be maximized.[8]

In research, while each explanation is examined, the others should be controlled for in order to eliminate interaction effects or mediating variables,[9] but these explanations are meant to stand as general trends, not direct causes. Each of the above listed items can be looked at from different angles, which leads to a myriad of ways to look at (or define) the digital divide. For example, measurements for the intensity of usage, such as incidence and frequency, vary by study. Some report usage as access to Internet and ICTs while others report usage as having previously connected to the Internet. Some studies focus on specific technologies, others on a combination (such as Infostate, proposed by Orbicom-UNESCO, the Digital Opportunity Index, or ITU's ICT Development Index). Based on different answers to the questions of who, with which kinds of characteristics, connects how and why, to what there are hundreds of alternatives ways to define the digital divide.[7] "The new consensus recognizes that the key question is not how to connect people to a specific network through a specific device, but how to extend the expected gains from new ICTs".[10] In short, the desired impact and "the end justifies the definition" of the digital divide.[7]

Explanatory variables[edit]

Obtaining access to ICTs and using them actively has been linked to a number of demographic and socio-economic characteristics: among them income, education, race, gender, and geographic location (urban-rural), age, skills, awareness, political and cultural and psychological attitudes.[9][11][12][13][14][15][16][17] Multiple regression analysis across countries has shown that income levels and educational attainment are identified as providing the most powerful explanatory variables for ICT access and usage.[18] Evidence was found that caucasians are much more likely than non-caucasians to own a computer as well as have access to the Internet in their homes. As for geographic location, people living in urban centers have more access and show more usage of computer services than those in rural areas. Gender was previously thought to provide an explanation for the digital divide, many thinking ICT were male gendered, but controlled statistical analysis has shown that income, education and employment act as confounding variables and that women with the same level of income, education and employment actually embrace ICT more than men (see Women and ICT4D).[19]

Means of connectivity[edit]


The infrastructure by which individuals, households, businesses, and communities connect to the Internet address the physical mediums that people use to connect to the Internet such as desktop computers, laptops, basic mobile phones or smart phones, iPods or other MP3 players, Xboxes or PlayStations, electronic books readers, and tablets such as iPads.[20]

Gini coefficients for telecommunication capacity (in kbps) among individuals worldwide [21]

Traditionally the nature of the divide has been measured in terms of the existing number of subscriptions and digital devices. Given the increasing number of such devices, the conclusion has been that the digital divide among individuals has increasingly been closing as the result of a natural and almost automatic process.[22][23] Recent studies have measured the digital divide not in terms of technological devices, but in terms of the existing bandwidth per individual (in kbps per capita).[24] As shown in the Figure on the side, the digital divide in kbps is not monotonically decreasing, but re-opens up with each new innovation. For example "the massive diffusion of narrow-band Internet and mobile phones during the late 1990s" increased digital inequality, as well as "the initial introduction of broadband DSL and cable modems during 2003–2004 increased levels of inequality".[24] This is because a new kind of connectivity is never introduced instantaneously and uniformly to society as a whole at once, but diffuses slowly through social networks. As shown by the Figure, only since 2009 do we have first time "clear evidence that the level of informational equality among average global citizens is lower than in the pre-digital era" of the late 1980s.[24] This means that during 1986 and 2009 communication capacity was more unequally distributed than during the time when only fixed-line phones existed. The most recent increase in digital equality stems from the massive diffusion of the latest digital innovations (i.e. fixed and mobile broadband infrastructures, e.g. 3G and fiber optics FTTH)". While this is good news, the bandwidth divide might as well once again re-open with the next digital innovation.[25]


Internet connectivity can be utilized at a variety of locations such as homes, offices, schools, libraries, public spaces, Internet cafe and others. There are also varying levels of connectivity in rural, suburban, and urban areas.[26]


Common Sense Media, a nonprofit group based in San Francisco, surveyed almost 1,400 parents and reported in 2011 that 47 percent of families with incomes more than $75,000 had downloaded apps for their children, while only 14 percent of families earning less than $30,000 had done so.[27]

Overcoming the digital divide[edit]

An individual must be able to connect in order to achieve enhancement of social and cultural capital as well as achieve mass economic gains in productivity. Therefore, access is a necessary (but not sufficient) condition for overcoming the digital divide. Access to ICT meets significant challenges that stem from income restrictions. The borderline between ICT as a necessity good and ICT as a luxury good is roughly around the “magical number” of US$10 per person per month, or US$120 per year,[18] which means that people consider ICT expenditure of US$120 per year as a basic necessity. Since more than 40% of the world population lives on less than US$ 2 per day, and around 20% live on less than US$ 1 per day (or less than US$ 365 per year), these income segments would have to spend one third of their income on ICT (120/365 = 33%). The global average of ICT spending is at a mere 3% of income.[18] Potential solutions include driving down the costs of ICT, which includes low cost technologies and shared access through Telecentres.

Furthermore, even though individuals might be capable of accessing the Internet, many are thwarted by barriers to entry such as a lack of means to infrastructure or the inability to comprehend the information that the Internet provides. Lack of adequate infrastructure and lack of knowledge are two major obstacles that impede mass connectivity. These barriers limit individuals' capabilities in what they can do and what they can achieve in accessing technology. Some individuals have the ability to connect, but they do not have the knowledge to use what information ICTs and Internet technologies provide them. This leads to a focus on capabilities and skills, as well as awareness to move from mere access to effective usage of ICT.[28]

The United Nations is aiming to raise awareness of the divide by way of the World Information Society Day which has taken place yearly since May 17, 2001.[29] It also sets up the Information and Communications Technology (ICT) Task Force in November 2001.[30]

Social media websites serve as both manifestations of and means by which to combat the digital divide. rwerThe former describes phenomena such as the divided users demographics that make up sites such as Facebook and Myspace or Word Press and Tumblr. Facebook and Word Press are considered "white" in their more complicated and up-to-date user interfaces while Tumblr and Myspace are considered "black" due to their less sophisticated appearance and functions. While this dichotomy does exist, black communities are using the internet, especially websites like Tumblr and Twitter, to narrow the gap of the digital divide. Each of these sites host thriving communities that engage with otherwise marginalized populations. An example of this is the large online community devoted to Afrofuturism, a discourse that critiques dominant structures of power by merging themes of science fiction and blackness. Social media brings together minds that may not otherwise meet, allowing for the free exchange of ideas and empowerment of marginalized discourses.

Effective use[edit]

Community Informatics (CI) provides a somewhat different approach to addressing the digital divide by focusing on issues of "use" rather than simply "access". CI is concerned with ensuring the opportunity not only for ICT access at the community level but also, according to Michael Gurstein, that the means for the "effective use" of ICTs for community betterment and empowerment are available.[31] Gurstein has also extended the discussion of the digital divide to include issues around access to and the use of "open data" and coined the term "data divide" to refer to this issue area.[32]


Social capital[edit]

Once an individual is connected, Internet connectivity and ICTs can enhance his or her future social and cultural capital. Social capital is acquired through repeated interactions with other individuals or groups of individuals. Connecting to the Internet creates another set of means by which to achieve repeated interactions. ICTs and Internet connectivity enable repeated interactions through access to social networks, chat rooms, and gaming sites. Once an individual has access to connectivity, obtains infrastructure by which to connect, and can understand and use the information that ICTs and connectivity provide, that individual is capable of becoming a "digital citizen".[9]


Second-level digital divide[edit]

The second-level digital divide, also referred to as the production gap, describes the gap that separates the consumers of content on the internet from the producers of content.[33] As the technological digital divide is decreasing between those with access to the internet and those without, the meaning of the term digital divide is evolving.[34] Previously, digital divide research has focused on accessibility to the internet and internet consumption. However, with more and more of the population with access to the internet, researchers are examining how people use the internet to create content and what impact socioeconomics are having on user behavior.[35] New applications have made it possible for anyone with a computer and an internet connection to be a creator of content, yet the majority of user generated content available widely on the internet, like public blogs, is created by a small portion of the internet using population. Web 2.0 technologies like Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and Blogs enable users to participate online and create content without having to understand how the technology actually works, leading to an ever increasing digital divide between those who have the skills and understanding to interact more fully with the technology and those who are passive consumers of it.[33] Many are only nominal content creators through the use of Web 2.0, posting photos and status updates on Facebook, but not truly interacting with the technology.
Some of the reasons for this production gap include material factors like the type of internet connection one has and the frequency of access to the internet. The more frequently a person has access to the internet and the faster the connection, the more opportunities they have to gain the technology skills and the more time they have to be creative.[36] Other reasons include cultural factors often associated with class and socioeconomic status. Users of lower socioeconomic status are less likely to participate in content creation due to disadvantages in education and lack of the necessary free time for the work involved in blog or web site creation and maintenance.[36] Additionally, there is evidence to support the existence of the second-level digital divide at the K-12 level based on how educators' use technology for instruction.[37] Schools' economic factors have been found to explain variation in how teachers use technology to promote higher-order thinking skills.[37]

The knowledge divide[edit]

Since gender, age, racial, income, and educational gaps in the digital divide have lessened compared to past levels, some researchers suggest that the digital divide is shifting from a gap in access and connectivity to ICTs to a knowledge divide.[34] A knowledge divide concerning technology presents the possibility that the gap has moved beyond access and having the resources to connect to ICTs to interpreting and understanding information presented once connected.[38]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ U.S. Department of Commerce, National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA). 1995. Falling through the net: A survey of the "have nots" in rural and urban America. Retrieved from
  2. ^ a b Chinn, Menzie D. and Robert W. Fairlie. 2004. The Determinants of the Global Digital Divide: A Cross-Country Analysis of Computer and Internet Penetration. Economic Growth Center. Retrieved from
  3. ^ Norris, P. 2001. Digital divide: Civic engagement, information poverty and the Internet world-wide. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge Univ. Press.
  4. ^ U.S. Department of Commerce, National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA). 1995. Falling through the net: A survey of the “have nots” in rural and urban America. Retrieved from
  5. ^ Patricia, J.P. 2003. E-government, E-Asean Task force, UNDP-APDIP. From:
  6. ^ Buente, Wayne, and Alice Robbin. 2008. Trends in Internet Information Behavior, 2000-2004. Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology 59(11): 1743-1760.
  7. ^ a b c Hilbert, M. 2011. The end justifies the definition: The manifold outlooks on the digital divide and their practical usefulness for policy-making. Telecommunications Policy, 35(8), 715-736. Retrieved from:
  8. ^ Huang, Chun-Yao; Hau-Ning Chen (2010). "Global Digital Divide: A Dynamic Analysis Based on the Bass Model". Journal of Public Policy & Marketing 29 (2): 248–264. 
  9. ^ a b c Mossberger, Karen, Carolina J. Tolbert, and Michele Gilbert. 2006. Race, Place, and Information Technology (IT). Urban Affairs Review. 41:583-620. retrieved from
  10. ^ Galperin, H. (2010). Goodbye digital divide, Hello digital confusion? A critical embrace of the emerging ICT4D consensus. Information Technologies and International Development, 6 Special Edition, 53–55
  11. ^ Lawton, Tait. "15 Years of Chinese Internet Usage in 13 Pretty Graphs". CNNIC. 
  12. ^ Wang, Wensheng. Impact of ICTs on Farm Households in China, ZEF of University Bonn, 2001
  13. ^ Statistical Survey Report on the Internet Development in China. China Internet Network Information Center. January 2007. From
  14. ^ Guillen, M. F., & Suárez, S. L. (2005). Explaining the global digital divide: Economic, political and sociological drivers of cross-national internet use. Social Forces, 84(2), 681-708.
  15. ^ Wilson, III. E.J. (2004). The Information Revolution and Developing Countries. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.
  16. ^ Carr, Deborah (2007). The Global Digital Divide. Contexts, 6(3), 58-58. Retrieved from
  17. ^ Wilson, Kenneth, Jennifer Wallin, and Christa Reiser. "Social Science Computer Review." Social Science Computer Review. 21.2 (2003): 133-143. Web. 7 Nov. 2012. From html.
  18. ^ a b c Martin Hilbert "When is Cheap, Cheap Enough to Bridge the Digital Divide? Modeling Income Related Structural Challenges of Technology Diffusion in Latin America". World Development, Volume 38, issue 5 (2010), p. 756-770; free access to the study here:
  19. ^ "Digital gender divide or technologically empowered women in developing countries? A typical case of lies, damned lies, and statistics ", Martin Hilbert (2011), Women’s Studies International Forum 34 (6): 479-489; free access to the study here:
  20. ^ Zickuher, Kathryn. 2011. Generations and their gadgets. Pew Internet & American Life Project.
  21. ^ "Technological information inequality as an incessantly moving target: The redistribution of information and communication capacities between 1986 and 2010", Martin Hilbert (2013), Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology; free access to the article through this link:
  22. ^ Compaine, B.M. (2001). The digital divide: Facing a crisis or creating a myth? Cambridge, MA: MIT Press
  23. ^ Dutton, W.H., Gillett, S.E., McKnight, L.W., & Peltu, M. (2004). Bridging broadband internet divides. Journal of Information Technology, 19(1), 28–38
  24. ^ a b c "Technological information inequality as an incessantly moving target: The redistribution of information and communication capacities between 1986 and 2010", Martin Hilbert (2013), Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology; free access to the article through this link:
  25. ^ SciDevNet (2014) How mobile phones increased the digital divide;
  26. ^ Livingston, Gretchen. 2010. Latinos and Digital Technology, 2010. Pew Hispanic Center
  27. ^ Ryan Kim (25 October 2011). "‘App gap’ emerges highlighting savvy mobile children". GigaOM. 
  28. ^ Karen Mossberger (2003). Virtual Inequality: Beyond the Digital Divide. Georgetown University Press
  29. ^ United Nations Educational UNDay
  30. ^ "UN Information and Communication Technologies (ITC) Task Force Launched Today at Headquarters", Press Release, United Nations (New York), 20 November 2001
  31. ^ Gurstein, Michael. "Effective use: A community informatics strategy beyond the digital divide". Retrieved 12 June 2012. 
  32. ^ Gurstein, Michael. "Open data: Empowering the empowered or effective data use for everyone?". Retrieved 12 June 2012. 
  33. ^ a b Reilley, Collen A. Teaching Wikipedia as a Mirrored Technology. First Monday, Vol. 16, No. 1-3, January 2011
  34. ^ a b Graham, M. (July 2011). "Time machines and virtual portals: The spatialities of the digital divide". Progress in Development Studies 11 (3): 211–227. doi:10.1177/146499341001100303.  Closed access
  35. ^ Correa, Teresa. (2008) Literature Review: Understanding the "second-level digital divide" papers by Teresa Correa. Unpublished manuscript, School of Journalism, College of Communication, University of Texas at Austin. [1].
  36. ^ a b Schradie, Jen. (April 2011), The Digital Production Gap: The Digital Divide and Web 2.0 Collide". Poetics, Vol. 39, No. 2, p. 145-168.
  37. ^ a b Reinhart, J., Thomas, E., and Toriskie, J. (2011). K-12 Teachers: Technology Use and the Second Level Digital Divide. Journal Of Instructional Psychology, 38(3/4), 181.
  38. ^ Sciadas, George. (2003). Monitoring the Digital Divide…and Beyond. Orbicom.

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