The digital divide in Belgium
Understanding a misunderstood reality that is sometimes difficult to perceive
It would be easy to think that the digital divide does not concern our Western societies, that we are all hyper-equipped with smartphones, computers, tablets, that we all have access to the Internet whether fixed (Wi-Fi) or mobile (3G, 4G, 5G). However, this is not the case. This is not a phenomenon only observed in emerging countries. Digital exclusion is present in the Western countries, in Europe, in Belgium.
With the rise in energy prices and inflation in general, the most financially precarious households could, if not already the case, find themselves in a situation of digital exclusion for direct or indirect economic reasons. Digital technology is becoming more and more important in our lives, accentuated by the crisis of Covid-19, where more than ever, we have used digital tools, such as teleworking or the continuity education thanks to online tools, requiring powerful and reliable fixed connections at home. Administrative procedures increasingly require the use of digital tools, requiring online forms, or during the search for information (job search, information related to social services and social benefits). Similarly, some purchasing habits (consumer goods, transport tickets, cultural activities) or health-related habits (making appointments, consultations and medical records) have adopted digital processes.
The concept of the digital divide
The digital divide takes different forms and is the consequence of multiple situations. It is not only visibly marked with a category of those who know how to use technology and those who do not. The theory of resources and appropriation (Van Dijk J., 2005 & Van Dijk J., 2020), illustrated in a simplified way below, helps us to better understand the roots of this digital divide. This theory describes technological appropriation in four phases, starting with an individual’s motivation to take part in the digital, his physical capacity to do so, his personal capacity in terms of knowledge and skills, that leads to the use of digital tools. Then, the individual’s participation in the digital environment can lead to positive (cultural, social…) or negative (cybercrime, illegal hacking, hate speech, misinformation or addiction) outcomes.
This theory considers that certain categories of individuals, described by demographic (age, gender), social-economic (income) and personal (knowledge, relationships/network, cultural capital) factors, have inequitable resources in relation to this process. The most disadvantaged categories, in terms of resources in a broad sense, are therefore more likely to be excluded from technological appropriation. And even after passing the second level and after the moment an individual has access to digital technology, the individuals with the most resources (again in the broad sense) will be more likely to benefit more from their use of digital tools. They will be better prepared for facing the negative aspects of their use and will therefore be able to avoid or overcome them more easily.
The situation in Belgium and the reasons for this digital divide
The economic factor (part of the physical constraint) is the most obvious cause when thinking about digital exclusion. It can prevent an individual from buying computer equipment or subscribing to an Internet subscription (mobile and/or fixed), adapted to his usage. We can no longer be satisfied with measuring digital inequalities solely by the possession and/or use of a digital terminal (smartphone, computer, tablet) or the Internet. We must also consider the quality of the conditions of access to the Internet. For example, an economically precarious household that does not have a computer but does have other terminals (smartphones, tablets, etc.) will have difficulty creating a resume on Word when looking for a job. In this example, the household has an Internet connection, has digital skills in its daily use and is part of the digital but might face digital divide when it comes to stepping outside its usual use of the Internet.
In 2021, 8% of the Belgian population between 16 and 74 years old did not have an Internet connection at home. This represents approximately 399,000 people. If we consider only economically precarious households, nearly one household out of five (18%) in 2021 did not have an Internet connection (see opposite).
When talking about physical access difficulties, one must also consider other indicators such as:
- The quality of equipment, the share of users who access the Internet only through a single terminal.
- The quality of the Internet connection, the disparities between those who have access to a dual mobile and fixed connection, versus those forced to choose.
However, it is the lack of motivation that is, individually, the most important reason found among people who do not have an Internet connection. These people do not see enough interest in participating in the digital world. This observation is the strongest among the oldest age group (54-74) with 41% (compared to 19% among 16-24 year olds and 20% among 25-54 year olds), as well as among those with lower secondary education with 40% (compared to 29% of those with upper secondary education and 17% of those with higher education). Finally, this motivating factor is not significantly different according to gender.
The economic reason is much more present among young people (16 to 24 years old), which is the main reason for almost half of them (47%), while none of them considers computer skills as the reason for the lack of connection in their home.
Computer skills are a barrier primarily for older respondents (54-74) and for those with a lower secondary education.
While at a young age, women tend to be better equipped than men, especially in the 16-24 age group, the disparities are reversed and become more pronounced for the older generations (55-74). With 53% of laptop ownership, older women are the least equipped.
So to summarize, it is people with low educational attainment or income, people over 55 years old and women, who are at greater risk of digital vulnerability. Although in some cases there is a decrease in the digital divide gap, it is important to continue to act and intensify efforts to continue to reduce this gap. Indeed, according to the Mathieu effect, the more socio-economically or culturally advantaged groups tend to maintain or increase their advantages over the more disadvantaged groups (Merton, 1968).
Applied to the digital world, this means that those who are most familiar with digital technologies, those who have more means to access and appropriate these tools, are the first to benefit from them, while the most disadvantaged groups have more difficulty accessing the same resources.
The topic of digital accessibility
As we have seen previously, one of the reasons for the digital divide is disability. It is defined as “any limitation of activity or restriction of participation in society suffered in its environment by a person because of a substantial, lasting or permanent impairment of one or more physical, sensory, mental, cognitive or psychic functions, a multiple disability or a disabling health disorder” (Article L. 114 of the Code of Social Action and Families).
Digital accessibility is the provision of digital resources to all individuals, regardless of their hardware or software, their network infrastructure, their native language, their culture, their geographical location, or their physical or mental abilities. It aims to ensure that the Internet is perceptible (e.g., visually or aurally), usable (e.g., navigation, finding content), understandable (e.g., input assistance), and robust (e.g., optimizing the use of assistive technologies).
The 4 principles and 12 rules of the WCAG (Web Content Accessibility Guidelines) determine the keys to accessible web content:
- Offer text equivalents to all non-text content.
- Provide alternative versions of time-based media (video, audio, etc.).
- Create content that can be presented in a simplified layout without losing information.
- Facilitate visual and auditory access to content.
- Keyboard-accessible features and content (blind people do not use the mouse).
- Sufficient reading time for each reader (for dynamic content).
- Content that does not cause a crisis. Example: light flash (for people with epilepsy).
- Orientation elements that allow the user to navigate and find their way around the site correctly (organized menu, possibility of returning to the home page, breadcrumb trail, etc.).
- Readable and understandable textual content (font size, readable fonts, color contrast between backgrounds and content, etc.).
- Pages that function in a predictable manner.
- Provide the ability to avoid or correct input errors.
- Website compatible with all current and future browsers, including assistive technologies (screen readers).
By applying these golden rules, we can ensure a better accessibility for everyone, enabling to overcome the negative effect of some disabilities and thus allowing a larger number of people to access the Internet and digital tools & platform.
As a player in the digital world, ICTs, but also companies such as HeadMind Partners that revolve around it, have a duty to ensure the digital inclusion of the entire population. As we have seen, the digital divide is a reality and should not be underestimated. There is not a single solution to address this digital divide, because there is not a single problem. Many initiatives have emerged and continue to appear. To reach the people affected, it is often necessary to build a network, to form partnerships with other social actors (private, public, NGOs) who do not necessarily act directly on digital issues, but who have privileged access and who have established dialogue and contact through other axes. We have understood that it is no longer just a question of seeking to provide terminals and being enthusiastic about a growing number of terminal possessions. It is now necessary to ensure physical access adapted to the use, but also access in terms of knowledge. The digital sector is constantly evolving and in order to be able to reduce the digital divide, in addition to catching up with a potential delay in digital knowledge, people excluded from digital will, like everyone else, have to stay continuously informed and up to date with new technologies.
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