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Digital Divide: A Pressing Concern in the Digital Age

Access to the internet has transitioned from being a mere luxury to an undeniable necessity. The ramifications of this shift are extensive, wielding influence not only on a global scale in the pursuit of sustainable development goals but also on a deeply personal level, with repercussions for individual health and well-being.

One particularly disconcerting trend that has emerged is the vulnerability of older adults who remain detached from the digital sphere. This issue transcends the boundaries of age and technology; it has become a matter of profound concern. Recent research findings have illuminated the fact that older individuals who do not utilise the internet tend to exhibit higher levels of dependency and require greater care than their digitally connected counterparts. The implications are profound, reaching into the realms of healthcare, independence, and overall quality of life.

Within the United Kingdom, one of the most significant entities that non-internet users grapple with is the National Health Service (NHS). In an era where the digitalisation of services has taken centre stage, the NHS, akin to many other healthcare services in advanced economies, has committed to delivering healthcare digitally. Paradoxically, this digital transformation has inadvertently exacerbated the burgeoning digital divide, resulting in healthcare disparities that disproportionately affect those who lack internet proficiency.

Yet, this divide extends its influence well beyond the realm of healthcare. Its effects permeate various facets of life, casting shadows over employment prospects, income levels, financial management, education, and even online shopping. The stark reality is that a substantial portion of the population faces invisible barriers that hinder their access to essential services and full participation in the digital age.

The era of the COVID-19 pandemic spotlighted these disadvantages vividly. As numerous services and activities shifted to online platforms for safety reasons, the consequences of internet non-use became increasingly conspicuous. The urgency of addressing this issue is now impossible to overlook.

Scholars have probed deeply into the factors linked with internet non-use. They have classified these factors, and it is enlightening to discern the prevailing ones. Advanced age stands at the forefront, followed by lower socio-economic status, disability, limited education levels, and reduced housing tenure. Intriguingly, being part of an ethnic minority and residing in an urban area display weaker associations with internet non-use. Gender, geographical location, and the number of hours worked do not show a direct correlation with internet non-use.

A particularly noteworthy discovery is that young people aged 16-24 who spend minimal time online are more likely to lack confidence in reading and writing. In contrast, older individuals tend to be more confident in these skills, implying that age alone is not an insurmountable barrier to digital literacy.

When individuals are queried about their reasons for lacking internet access at home, certain recurring themes surface. Lack of interest, concerns about complexity, and apprehensions about security dominate the list. Issues of cost and broadband connectivity, while less prominent, still wield significant influence.

The digital divide has left an indelible mark on our society. The time has come for a concerted effort to bridge this chasm, ensuring that everyone has an equitable opportunity to harness the benefits of online connectivity. Regardless of age, socio-economic status, or personal circumstances, access to the digital realm should be considered a fundamental right rather than a privilege.

In conclusion, internet non-use presents a multifaceted challenge with ramifications that extend far and wide. Its impact on productivity and health is patently clear, with specific factors that exacerbate the issue. The importance of addressing this divide became unmistakably evident during the pandemic. It is imperative that we give precedence to digital inclusion in our quest to build a more equitable and interconnected society.

Insights by: Dr Jay Wasim and Parnia Ahmed