Australia’s digital divide: Battler families struggle to keep up

Jarrod Brown
Jarrod Brown

The nation’s digital divide has disadvantaged students struggling to keep up with their peers in the classroom. 

In August, The Smith Family’s annual Family Pulse Survey asked parents from more than 90 disadvantaged communities across Australia about their issues and concerns relating to their children’s education. 

The results showed a staggering nine in 10 families were concerned about affording all the school essentials required by their children, with half of all parents surveyed saying they couldn’t afford the digital devices needed for schoolwork. 

Of those, more than half (51 per cent) pointed towards everyday expenses, such as groceries, rent and petrol, as the main cause of their financial pressure. 

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The Smith Family’s Head of Policy and Programs, Wendy Field, said the findings highlight the need for a national strategy to ensure all children have access to digital learning essentials. 

“Digital inclusion is one of the biggest educational challenges facing children in low-income households and, as families struggle to meet the skyrocketing costs of food, petrol and housing, it is becoming even harder to afford the devices and home internet children need for learning,” she said.

Despite efforts to close the digital divide during the last decade, Ms Field says the findings show disadvantaged students continue to fall further behind their peers.

“The risk is that, as this digital divide rolls on, young people experiencing disadvantage are less ready to take on opportunities of an increasingly digitised world – and less likely to enter the jobs of the future,” she said.

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Research from The Smith Family also reveals parents’ lack of digital literacy contributes to the continuing digital divide among students. 

After consulting with 40 parents and carers of children in programs run by The Smith Family, researchers found that, although eager, caregivers lacked the confidence and understanding to support their children in the online world.

“Providing families with devices and internet access is vital, but only one part of the challenge of bridging the digital divide,” said Ms Field.

“Families having relevant and timely knowledge and technical skills is vital, too.”

Families are struggling for digital equality

In 2023, more than six million Australians are excluded (3.6 million) or highly excluded (2.4 million) from digital devices. 

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While many factors contribute to this digital inequality, affordability remains the biggest obstacle barring disadvantaged students from accessing essential educational resources.

According to the Australian Digital Inclusion Index (ADII) report, 100 per cent of Australia’s lowest earners would have to pay more than five per cent of their household income to gain quality, uninterrupted connectivity.

More than one million Australians would also need to pay more than 10 per cent of their household income to achieve digital equality. 

In a QUT study, Advancing Digital Inclusion in Low-Income Australian Families, researchers found that many parents were already making deliberate investments in technology at a significant household cost. 

The study, involving 30 families from low-income households, also showed many disadvantaged households were sharing one device – often just a mobile phone – or didn’t have any home internet access at all, despite parents saying they understood the need to ensure their children enjoy the same digital access and opportunities as their peers.

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“We saved up all year and got them iPads for Christmas. They need them. We don’t want them to be left behind,” one parent wrote. 

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Jarrod Brown combines his background in journalism, copywriting and digital marketing with a lifelong passion for storytelling. Jarrod established his journalism career working on the education news and information site The Bursar. He lives on the Sunshine Coast - usually found glued to the deck of a surfboard.