What is the digital divide? Simply put, it’s the divide between those who have access to the internet and those who do not. Potential barriers to digital access include installation, knowledge, and trust.
The NCIOM Healthy Aging Task Force focuses on social isolation, nutrition, mobility, and falls prevention; the effects of the digital divide on these Task Force priorities are important to consider. Digital technology has been shown to help foster independence, increase quality of life, and improve mental and physical health. For older adults, digital technology has the potential to help overcome some of the challenges of aging. Social isolation can be decreased through networking online and video calls with family and friends. Virtual exercise regimens can increase physical function. Internet use has also been shown to reduce the likelihood of depression and loneliness in older adults, and allows access to information and services within their communities.
While the age gap in owning digital technology is beginning to close, the disparities that remain are important ones. Part of the problem is the mismatch between what older adults need from digital technology and what is available. Barriers include physical challenges; the size of the buttons, font size, and dexterity all have the potential to make using a digital device more difficult. Vision or hearing impairment can also affect the use of digital services. The top-down strategy of companies attempting to adapt technologies after a product has been developed has not always been successful, sparking concerns about ageism in technology development.
In addition, digital literacy is a challenge for many older adults, particularly those who were introduced to digital technology after their working years, leaving them to adapt to these changes without much support. This can affect older adults in myriad ways. A key issue is the lack of confidence in the ability to adopt new technologies. This lack of confidence can cause barriers to successful adaptation, impacting an older adult’s ability to uptake new information. An obstacle to confidence may also be the negative stereotype typically associated with older adults’ ability to use digital technology.
The digital divide also affects access to health care and other important services. For those able to take advantage of telehealth, digital platforms can provide access to remote medical health or education, help manage nutrition, and manage illness. This previous NCIOM blog post highlights the importance of telehealth at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly for high-risk groups such as older adults. Yet, studies have shown that there are widening digital access gaps for those with serious illness; this demographic has shown static digital technology ownership while those without serious illness face increasing ownership.
The North Carolina Digital Equity and Inclusion Collaborative (NCDEIC) is part of Gov. Roy Cooper’s plan to close the digital divide with nearly $1 billion in federal American Rescue Plan funds as well as $30 million in state funds. This will be spent by the end of 2026 with the aim to build internet infrastructure and support digital literacy training.