Digital Inequalities: Digital Divide and Participation Gap

Scholars are interested in exploring digital inequalities and the reasons for such a phenomenon. Robinson et al. (2015) and Scheerder, van Deursen, and van Dijk (2017) systematically analyzed and generalized three levels of digital divides: The first-level disparities are mainly caused by limited access to the Internet; the second-level gaps are related to skill and efficacy; the third-level digital inequalities focus on the tangible consequences of Internet use. A lot of research has been conducted to explore the first two levels of digital disparities. Now, investigations on the third level are increasing (Scheerder et al., 2017).

The outcomes of Internet use could be diverse. For example, in the business world, the Internet use can influence people’s attitude toward brands and products. In the field of politics, the Internet use may increase people’s political participation and uniform public opinion. This week’s reading provides detailed information on the causes and consequences of digital inequalities.

The Causes of Digital Inequality

The existing studies have found socioeconomic status and sociodemographic such as race, gender, location, and class can predict the online participation. Reisdorf and Groselj (2017) argued that people with low socioeconomic status are more likely to keep away from the Internet using. However, Baym mentioned in her book Personal Connections in the Digital Age that the Internet provides little social cues – there is no way to see other users’ skin color; whether they are health or disable; if they are rich or poor – it makes people feel equal online. If so, doesn’t the Internet promote users a feeling of equality online? Why do people with “socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds” (Reisdorf & Groselj, 2017, p. 1172) escape from the Internet?

When discussing how digital engagement and participation differ among different users, Robinson et al. (2015) failed to define what “digital engagement” is in their study. Moreover, Robinson et al. (2015) proposed that “Second-level digital inequalities such as those related to skills, participation, and efficacy affect an even greater proportion of the population.” (p. 570) They also mentioned “participation” in the same study. Since “engagement” was mentioned in the first-level digital divide while the concept of “participation” was discussed in the second-level digital divide, I suppose they have different meanings. However, what’s the difference between “engagement” and “participation”? It is confusing. I think the authors should clarify the concepts used in different levels of digital disparities.

Reisdorf and Groselj (2017) explored the role of attitudes toward the Internet in digital inequalities. Not surprising, they found that non-users always hold negative attitudes toward the Internet. It can be explained by the theory of reasoned action (Fishbein & Ajzen, 1975). However, how the negative attitudes related to other factors is still underexplored. Maybe Hoffmann and Meckel’s (2015) study sheds some lights on what causes people’s negative attitudes toward technologies and the Internet. Hoffmann and Meckel (2015) found that self-efficacy and privacy concerns mediate the relationship between sociodemographic and different forms of online participation. I guess that the negative attitudes might be caused by self-efficacy and privacy concerns. Future research is needed to support my hypothesis.

The Consequences of Internet Use

Sasaki (2016) investigated how the Internet use influences people’s online political participation (OPP). Rather than digital inequality, he proposed that internet use equalizes less educated people with well-educated people. Benefiting from using some Internet services, less educated users will generate a positive perception of Internet use. Such a perception let the less educated feel have more power to influence the political process than the educated, which finally could lead the less educated to OPP.

According to Sasaki’s (2016) findings, I suppose that we can find the same results in health communication online. Through using specific types of Internet service, less educated Internet users can feel being equipped with health-related knowledge and also think they can participate the health-related discussion online. In that case, the online environment could help to spread health-related information and promote two-way health communication.

Fishbein, M., & Ajzen, I. (1975). Belief, Attitude, Intention, and Behavior: An Introduction to Theory and Research. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.
Reisdorf, B. C., & Groselj, D. (2017). Internet (non-) use types and motivational access: Implications for digital inequalities research. New Media & Society19(8), 1157-1176.
Robinson, L., Cotten, S. R., Ono, H., Quan-Haase, A., Mesch, G., Chen, W., Schulz, J., Hale, T. M., & Stern, M. J. (2015). Digital inequalities and why they matter. Information, Communication & Society18(5), 569-582.
Sasaki, F. (2017). Does Internet use provide a deeper sense of political empowerment to the Less Educated?. Information, Communication & Society20(10), 1445-1463.
Scheerder, A., van Deursen, A., & van Dijk, J. (2017). Determinants of Internet skills, uses and outcomes: A systematic review of the second-and third-level digital divide. Telematics and informatics, 34(2017), 1607-1624.

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