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The 'usual suspects' predict the 'digital divide' among Australians

By Jennifer McLaren and Gianni Zappala - posted Wednesday, 18 December 2002

National surveys conducted by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) and the National Office for the Information Economy confirm that, on a comparative basis, Australia ranks highly in the adoption of Information and Communication Technologies (ICT). Nevertheless, it is well documented that the pattern of this consumption is not spread evenly across the population: a 'digital divide' exists. In brief, the 'usual suspects' of socioeconomic disadvantage are involved in the digital divide: low levels of income and education, non-metropolitan location, single-parent families, and low-skilled occupation are all associated with lower levels of ICT access and usage. Being older, Indigenous and/or female have also been found to be associated with reduced levels of access and use of ICT. The existence of the digital divide is compounding disadvantage for some because having access to ICT is becoming so central to being able to fully participate in the economic, social, political and cultural spheres of society.

The data presented and discussed in this article come from a study aimed at collecting benchmark data on computer and Internet access and usage among students from financially disadvantaged families on The Smith Family's Learning for Life (LFL) program. The LFL program aims to increase the participation of children from financially disadvantaged families in the educational process by the provision of financial and educational support.

The main findings from the study with respect to household access to ICT were as follows:

  • Fifty-nine per cent of families had a computer at home. This suggests that LFL families are significantly below the national average, as almost three-quarters (74 per cent) of all Australian households with dependent children have a home computer, according to the ABS;
  • Just under one third (32 per cent) of families were connected to the Internet at home. Again, this is below the national average for Internet access among households with dependent children (48 per cent according to the ABS, and 58 per cent according to a more recent study);
  • ICT access was not affected by whether the household was situated in a metropolitan or non-metropolitan area;
  • In terms of ethnic/cultural background, Indigenous households and households from 'Pacific Islands' background were much less likely to have a computer or Internet access at home compared to other groups. Households where the parent/s were either Australian-born or born overseas but from English-speaking backgrounds had similar levels of computer and Internet access to the overall mean. In contrast, households from non-English speaking backgrounds (NESB) (especially European) had higher levels of computer and Internet access;
  • One-parent households had lower levels of access to a home computer (55 per cent) and the Internet (28 per cent) compared to two-parent households (66 per cent and 39 per cent respectively);
  • Households that were located in the most disadvantaged areas were less likely to have a home computer (52 per cent) and home Internet access (27 per cent), compared to households situated in the least disadvantaged areas (67 per cent and 35 per cent respectively);
  • Households that owned or were purchasing their homes were more likely to own a computer (73 per cent) than households that were renting privately (58 per cent) or living in public housing (53 per cent). Owners/purchasers were also more likely to have Internet access (43 per cent) compared to those renting privately (33 per cent) or in public housing (26 per cent);
  • Households whose main source of income was social security were far less likely to have a computer at home compared with those whose main source of income came from employment (58 per cent v 72 per cent). Similarly, home Internet access was higher for households whose primary income was from employment (44 per cent) compared to those on social security (31 per cent);
  • A striking finding was the strong association between the level of parental education and computer and Internet access. When comparing households where the parent/s had less than 10 years of education with households where the parent was university educated, the rate of home computer access was 43 per cent for the former and 88 per cent for the latter. The rates for Internet access were similarly disparate (18 per cent and 57 per cent respectively). This finding is consistent with previous studies that have found education level to be the key driver of Internet access, followed in importance only by income level.

The main findings for ICT usage among LFL students were as follows:

  • An overwhelming majority of students (98 per cent) indicated that they used a computer. This is comparable to Australia-wide surveys. Most students stated that they use a computer 'sometimes' (33 per cent) or 'often' (28 per cent), with one quarter of students stating that they use a computer 'regularly';
  • Older students use computers more frequently than younger students. None of the other demographic characteristics seem to be strongly associated with the frequency of computer use;
  • Parental level of education seemed to have the most influence of the socioeconomic variables, with over one-third (35 per cent) of students whose parents were university educated using a computer 'regularly' compared to only 23 per cent of students whose parents had not completed Year 10;
  • Students whose parents' main source of income was from employment were more likely to state they used a computer regularly (29 per cent), compared to students whose parents' main source of income was from social security (24 per cent);
  • Regular usage was also higher for students who lived in a house that was owned or being paid off compared to those in private or public rental accommodation, and for those who lived in the more advantaged areas compared to those in more disadvantaged areas;
  • Just over four-fifths of students (82 per cent) indicated that they had used the Internet. The Internet was used less frequently than computers;
  • Older students were significantly more likely to state that they had used the Internet, and use it more frequently, compared to younger students;
  • Once again, the level of parental education was a key factor in whether students used the Internet. For example, students whose parents had a university degree were almost three times more likely to have ever used the Internet than those whose parents did not have a university degree;
  • Almost three-quarters (70 per cent) of students who used the Internet did so at school. The next most common location for Internet use was at home (29 per cent). This finding suggests the important role that schools have as a means of providing access and training in ICT for students of disadvantaged backgrounds;
  • Using the Internet at school was also related to the level of parental education such that the higher the level of parental education, the more likely the student was to use the Internet at school.


Considering the importance of having home Internet access for children's educational performance, the fact that almost three-quarters of students in this study did not use the Internet at home is of concern, particularly given that almost half of a comparable Australian population have home Internet access. Finding ways to increase the home access of low-income families to the Internet should therefore remain a policy priority for all sectors (government, private and nonprofit) aiming to bridge the digital divide.

Previous studies have shown that the level of parental education is strongly associated with factors such as investment in resources that promote learning. Having access to the Internet and computers is now a key educational resource that influences educational outcomes. This has at least two further implications:

  1. The costs of these resources, as with other educational costs in general, are increasingly being pushed onto individual families. This further compounds the problem for families in financial disadvantage who often struggle to meet the basic costs of their children's education. It therefore reinforces the need for programs such as Learning for Life, which aim to assist families in financial disadvantage, to meet some of the costs associated with their children's education;
  2. Policies aimed at bridging the digital divide should not only focus on reducing the cost of ICT but also on ensuring that programs that provide appropriate parenting support also emphasise the educational importance of having home access to computers and the Internet. This may mean that access and training programs should focus just as much on parents as they do with children. Once again, the dual-generation approach (focus on parents and children) of programs such as Learning for Life provide an appropriate framework within which to embed such initiatives.

Finally, schools are important in closing or levelling the access gap, as most students use computers and the Internet at school. Reinforcing the role of parental education, however, the likelihood of students using the Internet at school also increased in line with the educational level of their parents. Greater research and policy attention needs to be given to the role of schools, teachers and parents in the bridging of the digital divide.

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This is an edited version of an article first published in First Monday and the Smith Family Background paper No 5 (pdf file, 360Kb).

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About the Authors

Jennifer McLaren is a Research Assistant, in the Research & Social Policy Team, The Smith Family.

Dr Gianni Zappalà is Principal of Orfeus SQ, which develops and cultivates people’s Spiritual Intelligence (SQ ) to help them achieve their purpose and have meaningful impact in their personal and work lives and Adjunct A/Professor at the Centre for Social Impact, UNSW.

Other articles by these Authors

All articles by Jennifer McLaren
All articles by Gianni Zappala
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First Monday
The Smith Family
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