Case study: Has COVID-19 been a driver of digital inclusion in Australia? Reflecting on early findings

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Young woman wearing a mask to protect herself from COVID-19

With the introduction of COVID-19 restrictions, much of contemporary life moved online. This case study considers how these restrictions and the associated digital transformation of all facets of life has impacted how Australians use the internet. The data at this stage suggests that, while some important gains in internet use are evident across all groups, the impact of initial COVID-19 restrictions in 2020 seems to have reinforced many of the existing contours of digital inclusion and exclusion.

In 2020, we asked Australians how COVID-19 restrictions had impacted their digital connectivity. Most spent more time online (68%) and increased the range of activities they did online (59%) [1].

While this rise in online activity suggests the potential for positive digital inclusion outcomes, only 32% of Australians reported improving their digital skills to help with their work, study, or home life and less than a fifth (18%) reported upgrading their internet access.

Most importantly, the impact of COVID-19 on how Australians accessed and used the internet, and the impact of this use in terms of skills, was distributed unevenly across the population. Where 80% of highly included Australians increased their time spent online, only 42% of highly excluded Australians did the same. This same pattern is evident across all questions, demonstrating that although COVID-19 might be a driver of digital transformation, it will not necessarily prove to have been a significant driver of digital inclusion [2].

Table 1: Impact of COVID-19 in 2020: Highly included Australians vs highly excluded Australians

National Highly included Highly Excluded
Spent more time online
68%
80%
42%
Increased range of activities done online
59%
71%
28%
Upgraded internet access
18%
23%
8%
Improved digital skills to help with work, study, or home life
32%
40%
14%

Increases in online activity were not seen in population groups and locations that were comparatively less impacted by the pandemic (such as those not living in locked down locations), and less likely to be involved in activities that shifted online, like work and education. These are also population groups and locations that typically have lower levels of digital inclusion from the outset.

For older Australians and those in regional areas, the impact of the COVID-19 move online was comparatively minimal. Older Australians were much less likely than their younger counterparts to report expanding their online activities. Where 82% of 18–34-year-olds and 71% of 35–45-year-olds spent more time online in the wake of COVID-19, the same was true for only 59% of 55–64-year-olds and 50% of 65–74-year-olds. Similarly, while 45% of 18–34-year-olds improved their digital skills to help with their work, study, or home life, this declined as age increases, with only 14% of 65–75-years-olds improving their skills.

Australians in regional areas were also less likely to have spent more time online, increase their range of online activities, or improve their digital skills than those living in capital cities. For capital cities, 64% of people reported increasing the range of activities they did online compared to 48% in regional areas.

Table 2: Impact of COVID-19 in 2020: metro vs regional

National Metro Regional
Spent more time online
68%
72%
61%
Increased range of activities you do online
59%
64%
48%
Improved your digital skills for work, study, or home life
32%
37%
23%
Upgraded your internet access
18%
21%
13%

These findings reflect the varied impact of COVID-19 restrictions. While the rapid move to online education and work had dramatic consequences for some, the impact was less marked for mid-life to senior Australians that were out of the labour force. Likewise, Australians living in regional areas were – at the time of data collection in 2020 – much less likely to be under stay-at-home restrictions.

Conversely, groups that were heavily impacted by COVID-19 restrictions demonstrated the greatest increases in online activity. Households with children, for example, were much more likely to increase their time spent online, increase their range of activities, improve their internet skills, and upgrade their internet connection than households without. Where 74% of couples with children and 78% of one parent families spent more time online, only 64% of single person households and 59% of couples without children did so. These differences are likely a result of the shift to online learning and a reliance on online entertainment and leisure activities because of lockdown restrictions.

Findings around perceptions of improving digital skills to help with work, study, or home life are particularly interesting in terms of gauging whether COVID-19 had an impact on digital inclusion. At the national level, 32% of Australians reported they were able to improve their digital skills. In households without children, this was significantly lower. Just a quarter of single person householders indicated improving their digital skills (25%), as did 27% of couples without children. In households with children, responses to this question jumped to 37% (couples with children) and 40% (one parent families).

Further emphasising the pandemic’s geographic dynamics in 2020, the impact of COVID-19 on internet access and use within specific household types varied by location. Households with children in metropolitan Australia – those most likely to have experienced COVID-19 restrictions – recorded impacts at much higher rates than those households with children living in regional Australia. Particularly striking are the results for upgrading internet access. Where just under a quarter (23%) of couples with children and 36% of one parent families in metropolitan Australia upgraded their internet access, this was true of just 12% of couples with children and 16% of one parent families in regional Australia.

COVID-19: A driver of digital inclusion?

The rapid shift online of 2020 changed the way many Australians use the internet. Further, these changes appear to have mostly involved those Australians who were already active online.

Population groups that typically register lower digital inclusion scores – such as older Australians, and those living in regional areas – were much less likely to report an impact on their access to and use of the internet than those with higher digital inclusion scores. This can partially be explained by the pandemic’s dynamics. While undoubtedly impacted by COVID-19 these population groups were comparatively less implicated in lockdown restrictions and the ‘pivot’ to online work, schooling, and education.

Although a driver of digital transformation, this early data suggests COVID-19 has not necessarily been a strong driver of digital inclusion. Instead, it appears that in some respects COVID-19 may have reinforced Australia’s uneven distribution of digital participation, by increasing online activity among people who were already more likely to be online, with the most pronounced effect being on those with children, and in metropolitan areas.

References and footnotes

[1] Please note, total figures may not add up due to rounding to one decimal place.

[2] C Wilson & J Barraket, How COVID-19 is Worsening Digital Inequality, 2020. Accessed August 24, 2021. https://www.ceda.com.au/NewsAndResources/Opinion/Technology-Innovation/How-COVID-19-is-worsening-digital-inequality

L H Campbell, A C Smith, P Brooks, “The NBN Futures Forum: Social and Economic Benefits of Broadband for Digital Inclusion and Telehealth,” Journal of Telecommunications and the Digital Economy 8, no. 3 (2020): 18–32. https://doi.org/10.18080/jtde.v8n3.346

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