The digital divide is a scary idea. It is the idea that as information moves away from offline and toward online, those who don’t have access to those online channels lose access to that information. Lose access to services. Lose access.
The people who would be most negatively affected by a digital divide are those who need that access the most. The poor, minorities, the elderly, the traditionally underserved. (Also note, I’m only talking about in the States now; I have no background in developing countries.) So we should make sure to ensure access and information is in as many places as possible, which is a good thing! Increasing access to online information is another good thing, and programs like Philly KEYSPOT are great ways to do it.
But I believe that dichotomy (online vs. offline) is a great oversimplification of the problem. There is a digital divide and research bears it out. Minorities, the poor and the elderly do not access the internet at home as much as other demographic groups. Broadband access is but a small percentage of what whites get. But, as I’ve said before, minority groups still use social media, and the fastest growing demographic groups access social media are the elderly and poor. So where is the disconnect? Is there a divide, or not?
Well, like all good public health answers, it depends on how you ask the question. If you ask about going online at home, on a desktop or laptop computer, using a non-dial-up service, there is a divide. Because computers and broadband access are expensive! But when you ask if people get online, there is less of a divide. And the reason why is probably sitting on your desk, in your pocket or in your purse right now: smartphones.
[U]sage of smartphones as a primary internet access device is highest among several groups with relatively low rates of traditional internet and broadband adoption—for example, those with no college experience as well as those with relatively low income levels.
One of my favorite health thinkers, Raed Mansour, recently posted on this dichotomy, and opined that many in public health view our lack of reaching traditionally underserved populations as a technology problem. That we spend too much time focusing on using the latest and greatest. Raed shoots back, saying:
[W]hat we really have is a public health problem and not a technology/data problem.
We should never rely on only one communication tool to solve our problems. We also shouldn’t avoid a tool that is so commonly used in our vulnerable populations and by their influencers.
Too often public health communicators, focused on providing information to traditionally underserved populations shun digital outreach because of an increasingly outdated view of how people access digital resources. There will always be a place for boots-on-the-ground outreach and offline communications, but to ignore the fastest growing communications pipeline because of a non-evidence based technophobia is doing a disservice to folks who continue to get the short end of the stick.