Late on the Curve: Causes and Consequences of Differences in Digital Skills

Late on the Curve: Causes and Consequences of Differences in Digital Skills

Jos de Haan (Erasmus University Rotterdam, The Netherlands)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-60566-699-0.ch016
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Differences in digital skills lie at the heart of social inequality in advanced knowledge societies. The Internet access ‘markets’ in these societies are close to reaching saturation point, giving almost everyone access to the Net. By contrast, differences in digital skills appear to be widening over time. This chapter focuses on The Netherlands, where above all the elderly, people with a lower education level, people who are economically inactive and members of ethnic minorities lag behind. It addresses the mechanisms that underlie differences in digital skills between population groups. A lack of financial and cognitive resources seems to be of particular importance. Based on a diffusion of innovations framework the paper goes beyond the largely descriptive research on the digital divide and considers the consequences of differences in digital skills. These differences influence the labour market performance of those at a digital disadvantage and also has an impact on their personal lives.
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Introduction: Inequality In Knowledge Societies

Information and communication technology (ict) has become indispensable in modern knowledge societies, and more and more aspects of our lives have become interwoven with and dependent upon computers and the Internet. Handling these media require digital skills that not all people master to the same degree (Eurostat, 2006). Early adopters have more experience and capabilities in handling new media compared to late adopters (Rogers, 1995; De Haan, 2003). More and more digital skills seem to influence who participate fully in a knowledge society and who do not. Increasingly, the possession of these skills is a condition for pursuing a successful education career, finding work and progressing in one’s career, and also for maintaining social contacts in our private lives.

Concerns about increasing social inequality lie at the heart of the debate on the rise of knowledge societies, but too often these discussions are restricted to simple inequalities in access to new information and communication technologies (ICT). Countries with high diffusion of ICT’s show diminishing divides in the possession to ICT’s and widening divides in the digital skills and in use (Van Dijk & Hacker, 2002). This article deals with both causes and consequences of differences in digital skills. This focus on skills is based on a criticism of current research into the digital divide which is a) mainly descriptive, b) starting from a too simple criterion of access and c) lacking in consideration of the possible consequences of differences in ICT access. Digital skills are treated here as part of a multidimensional concept of access (consisting of motivation, possession, digital skills and use).

Citizens differ in the extent to which they possess digital skills. This article addressed the questions as to how far elderly, people with a lower education level, people who are economically inactive and members of ethnic minorities lag behind in terms of digital skills. It further explores the causes of that disadvantage and its consequences in the field of labour market participation, social participation, integration of ethnic groups and information seeking as a democratic prerequisite. These objectives are both theoretical and empirical. They are theoretical because they are based on a theoretical model of the digital divide. This model is based on socio-economic theory is general and applicable to a wide range of phenomenon and countries. They are empirical because multivariate analyses of quantitative data is based on this model and shows the consequences of the divide for different groups in different social fields. The four central research questions are:

  • To what extent do the digital skills of the elderly, the low-educated, the economically inactive and members of ethnic minorities differ from those of the rest of the population?

  • What difficulties do those with a skills disadvantage give for not using the Internet and what differences are found in this respect among the elderly, the economically inactive, the low-educated and ethnic minorities?

  • Which factors contribute to the digital skills disadvantage of the elderly, the economically inactive, the low-educated and ethnic minorities?

  • What social and economic consequences does non-use of ICT have for participation in society?

Key Terms in this Chapter

Free time: number of hours a week that are not spent on work, schooling, household tasks, personal care or transportation.

Social contacts: amount of time spent on social contacts outside the household (amongst other parties, visiting friends and family, telephoning)

Diversity of media use: combination of the frequency (1-7) of reading magazines and the number of newspapers per week.

Education: highest attained level of education or the present level (for those who are still in the educational system)

Multiple Access: number of places where respondent uses a computer/internet (home, school, work).

Income: net household income

Digital skills: sum score of 8 types of use (information search on the internet, buy something online, telebanking, surfing for leisure, e-mail, chat, text editing/spreadsheet, games). average 2.61, standard deviation 1.78, Cronbach’s alpha .75, average inter-item correlation .33.

Social and cultural integration: social contact of people from ethnic minorities with indigenous Dutch and the control over the Dutch language (based on three statements)

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