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Digital divide is growing in Belgium, call for investment to increase accessibility
The digital divide is widening in Belgium despite an overall increase in the use of online services, according to new research instigated by the King Baudouin Foundation (KBF).
The Digital Inclusion Barometer, created by research teams from UCLouvain and VUB, reports that while the pandemic may have accelerated overall use of digital tools and the honing of digital skills, almost one in two Belgians remains digitally vulnerable.
Although the use of online services is increasing, 7% of Belgians still do not use the internet. Some 39% have low digital skills, mainly among the socio-economically and culturally vulnerable.
“The position of the most vulnerable people in an increasingly digital society is worrying and calls for alternative solutions,” says the KBF report.
The barometer published in 2020 first uncovered the existence of digital inequalities within society and identified them as threats to participation in various domains of life.
Coronavirus widened digital divide
“Since then, the Covid-19 crisis and the accompanying health measures have further increased the digitalisation of society, forcing us to become even more digitally active,” researchers found.
“But the gaps remain: people with socio-economic and cultural disadvantages have difficulty keeping up with digital developments.”
When it comes to Belgium’s regions, the level of digital vulnerability is 49% in Wallonia, compared to 46% in Flanders and 39% in Brussels.
But perhaps most alarmingly, the number of people with low digital skills is actually increasing everywhere, and especially in Flanders.
“The rapid development of digitalisation in this region is not accompanied by an increase in the skills of internet users,” the report found.
In 2021, 92% of households had an internet connection at home, but there’s a large gap between high-income households – 98% of which have an internet connection – and low-income households (82%).
The Barometer also found that the idea that 16- to 24-year-olds are digital natives does not hold true for young people with low levels of education: 22% of them only connect to the internet via their smartphone and 45% have low digital skills (compared to 2% and 22% respectively for young people with a higher education degree).
“The results of this new Digital Inclusion Barometer should serve as a benchmark for all stakeholders so that no one is left behind, because the digitalisation of our society is a lasting phenomenon, beyond the Covid-19 pandemic,” the report says.
“Despite the initiatives taken over the last two years to improve access to the Internet and promote digital literacy, our society has not succeeded sufficiently in involving the most vulnerable in digital life. It is therefore essential to continue to invest in tools and services accessible to all and in the development or improvement of digital skills.”
Researchers added that at the same time, alternative solutions to the internet that include physical contact or telephones, for example, must be maintained for the most vulnerable people alongside digital channels.