Friday, October 19, 2007

Disadvantage and distance in the Netherlands

The Netherlands are often presented (and I also do it myself) as the land of milk and honey in the field of internet. Almost every household has a computer, more than 75 percent have an internet connection; more than 80 percent uses broadband with an average speed of 2Mbps. This gives the impression that everyone in the Netherlands has enough digital skills.

But this week the report Disadvantage and distance was published by SPC about the digital divide in the Netherlands. It paints a less optimistic picture by focusing on digital skills of the low-educated, the elderly, ethnic minorities and the economically inactive. Some highlights.

"Information and communication technology (ict) has become indispensable in Western societies, and more and more aspects of our lives have become interwoven with and dependent upon computers and the Internet. Participation in the knowledge society requires adequate digital skills. 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. However, Dutch citizens differ in the extent to which they possess these digital skills. The data presented in this report show that the elderly, people with a lower education level, people who are economically inactive and members of ethnic minorities possess fewer of these skills. The research questions addressed in this report are concerned with how far certain groups in society lag behind in terms of digital skills, the causes of that disadvantage and its consequences. The report poses four central research questions.

1 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?
There are wide differences in digital skills between young and old, and between people with a high and a low education level. As an illustration, 43% of people with a lower education level use the Internet to search for specific information, compared with 81% of those with a higher education level. The difference between people younger and older than 55 years is of roughly the same order. The difference between the economically inactive and ethnic minorities compared with those in work and the indigenous population, respectively, is relatively smaller. Housewives/househusbands and Turks/Moroccans in particular lack digital skills. The degree of disadvantage in possession of digital skills is based both on more ‘objective’ usage characteristics and on people’s own, more subjective estimations of their skills.
People tend to overestimate their own disadvantage to some extent, as reflected in that fact the differences based on subjective indicators are slightly greater than those based on more objective indicators.

2 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?
Members of ethnic minorities cite financial difficulties as a problem rather than ‘lack of interest’ more often (roughly 25% versus 12%) than the indigenous Dutch. Older persons also frequently cite lack of interest (42%), but they themselves also often believe they are too old (36% of the over-75s). Lack of interest or unwillingness to use the Internet can mask a variety of other reasons, such as lack of time or an
erroneous image of what the Internet is, what it can do and what its potential benefits are. But reasons that people prefer not to voice can also be masked by the label ‘lack of interest’, such as fear of computers, fear of failure, fear of loss of face, fear of making mistakes and embarrassment about their lack of skills. For ethnic minorities (Turks and Moroccans, and especially women), their limited command of the Dutch language can also play a role.

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

The study investigated the extent to which disposable income, ability to process information, social setting and time constraints influence people’s skills disadvantage. Disposable income was found to be a barrier to the acquisition of digital skills for the economically inactive in particular. A lack of facility in processing information proved to be a hindrance for both the low-educated and for Turks and Moroccans. Low literacy has been related to digital disadvantage in earlier research and is in itself already a serious barrier to participation in the knowledge society. Two factors were found not to be relevant for the acquisition of digital skills: social setting and time constraints.

4 What social and economic consequences does non-use of ict have for participation in society?
The consequences for people with a low education level and for the unemployed are partly economic, in that they affect their opportunities for active labour market participation or for moving ahead. Only a small proportion of the unemployed and disabled (24%) report that their computer knowledge is sufficient to enable them to get a job. People with a low education level find that their deficient computer skills are a problem in progressing in their work (25% do however feel that their knowledge is sufficient). Nonetheless, people in this group are less willing (than the more highly educated) to invest in acquiring digital skills. To what extent people need more skills in order to progress in their own work setting or sector was not studied.
For low-skilled jobs, the use of ict sometimes actually leads to a simplification of the work (think of the scanners used at supermarket checkouts). Such a downgrading of job content does not demand more skills, but rather the ability still to derive some job satisfaction from this reduced job content.

Task for the government
It is difficult to determine unambiguously whether someone possesses sufficient digital skills, because this involves a normative opinion about what a person should have in the way of digital skills in the present time and in a specific social situation. Such a checklist does not (yet) exist. A shortage of skills can manifest itself in at least two ways: if that shortage wholly or partly results in individual goals not being achieved, or if social demands are higher than individual ambitions. The importance of increasing the digital skills of Dutch citizens is rarely questioned. The question is not so much whether this should happen, but rather who should be responsible for it. That responsibility lies not only with the government, but also with the business community, with technology producers and with individual citizens".

A complete summary is available in the pdf of the report, pages 84-89.

Blog Posting Number: 899


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