Get Online Week | Insights

The Barriers to Getting Online: Young People and Digital Poverty

As COVID-19 lockdowns and social distancing restrictions continue to apply, it’s more important than ever for young people to be able to get online, writes Helen Connolly, South Australia’s Commissioner for Children and Young People.

By Good Things Foundation Australia · 19/10/2021

As South Australia’s Commissioner for Children and Young People, I talk to thousands of young people about what’s good and bad about their lives. One of the consistent things they tell me, regardless of where they live, is just how crucial it is for them to have good access to Wi-Fi, data and to digital devices. 

Their capacity to get online means they can participate in their education and keep up with their peers, find employment opportunities, access information for their health and wellbeing, and importantly engage with friends and family via social platforms that include opportunities to relax by listening to music, or watch their favourite online content.

The shift to online learning during COVID-19 lockdowns has highlighted the degree of digital inequality that exists across our communities, and exposed the multiple impacts that a lack of digital access has on young people.

According to the Australian Council of Social Service, more than one in six children in Australia live in poverty. This equates to 774,000 children under the age of 15 years. In South Australia, SACOSS has estimated that 200,000 adults and children are struggling to survive on income payments that are well below the poverty line. This equates to 1 in 8 people living in poverty – including over 75,000 children, so that 1 in 4 are growing up in the poorest families. Because digital access impacts almost every aspect of young people’s lives, they are also likely to be living with ‘digital poverty’. 

Young people’s experience of digital poverty varies. For some their experience is brief, for others it is intermittent, while for another group digital poverty is a persistent condition that they are forced to face throughout their lives. Having digital access is as important to young people as having access to electricity or transport. 

To understand the issue better, in 2020 I undertook a survey to which more than 250 young people aged 10-20 years responded. Their responses highlighted the need for a comprehensive digital poverty agenda. One that includes expansion of free public Wi-Fi networks to include all public buildings, public transport, and community infrastructure, and provision of free laptop and data packs for all School Card holders.

Approximately 7% of South Australian young people surveyed reported having no access to Wi-Fi at home, with 9% reporting they have no access to a mobile phone. Young people experiencing digital poverty told me about the challenges they face sharing laptops with other family members, of unstable internet connections when trying to ‘get online’ at the same time as other members of their household and about their strong reliance on access to Wi-Fi through schools, libraries, McDonalds, and other public spaces that offer access for free. 

They’re very concerned about the impact digital poverty has on their schooling, particularly when schools increasingly expect students to have a laptop or tablet to undertake work in the classroom and at home. 

Just like adults, young people need digital access to manage their ‘life admin’. In addition to their reliance on digital access for learning, work, sport, and recreational activities they also need access for internet banking and to be able to make a medical or self-care appointment. They need to pay bills, send assignments, change rosters and interact with state and federal government agencies for services and support all provided on digital platforms and through digital connections. 

Most workplaces expect young workers to have a smartphone and data. In entry level jobs in hospitality and retail, young people are expected to access and change their rosters, find people to cover or swap shifts, and receive and respond to compulsory training requirements. 

Regional young people are particularly concerned about having reliable and affordable internet access so that they can access education portals, pursue online training courses and job seeking opportunities, and keep up or make new social connections. 

Future policies and strategies must take into account the importance digital access has to young people. They need to reflect a comprehensive and targeted approach to the social, cultural, educational, and economic aspects of digital technology and how this operates in their everyday lives. If we don’t address the ‘digital divide’ that is already apparent, many more South Australian children and young people will be left behind.

What the Commissioner heard from her survey of South Australian young people aged 10 – 20 years:

“Without technology we would be very behind.” – 14 year old

“Having to stay in class during school breaks so you can use the school’s technology to get your work done, feels like a punishment rather than a support.”  – 15 year old

“My grandparents are poor. They struggle to get me what I need like internet access, smart phone, and new shoes.” – 18-21 year old

“We have no choice these days but to use technology, everything is on it. I understand spending too much time on the phone, but we have to know how to use other technologies. The world is run by technology these days.” 18 year old

Click here to download a copy of the Commissioner’s report: My Digital Life – the impact of digital poverty on SA children and young people.

Image of Helen ConnollyAbout Helen Connolly

Helen Connolly is South Australia’s inaugural Commissioner for Children and Young People. Helen advocates at a systemic level to improve the development and wellbeing of South Australian children and young people, directly engaging with them to seek their views on how to promote and protect their rights and interests and be supported to have greater participation in decision making.