Getty images 615629546 Senior woman using VR headset

What is the digital divide?

The gap between people who have full access to digital technologies – such as the internet and computers – and those who do not.

The digital divide affects all generations – both rural and urban communities – and a wide variety of industries and sectors. 

As opportunities created by the internet increase, so do inequities for those who do not have access to the technologies, tools and skills needed to participate in the digital world.

Concerns about the digital divide have only increased during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The reliance on using the internet and digital devices have greatly increased and now play an even more important role in our lives. 

Closing the digital divide will ensure greater resilience in the face of future pandemics and more extreme social isolation.

We increasingly rely on digital resources to allow access to:

  • services and information – from COVID-19 advice to paying household bills
  • teaching and learning – highlighted by recent periods of homeschooling and remote working during the pandemic
  • shopping online
  • attending medical appointments and sourcing health advice
  • staying in touch with friends and family.

Old woman sits in a house near the window
Many older people felt increased isolation during the COVID-19 pandemic

Who is affected by the digital divide?

Several different groups of people are affected by the digital divide, most notably because of age and access issues.

These include:

  • school children and the 'homework gap' – a gap that occurs when homework is set that requires internet access that is not available at home.
  • workforce and employers – some workers are in danger of being left behind if they are lacking in digital skills, access to the internet and digital devices.
  • health care patients – people without access to broadband and digital devices will lack access to a growing reliance on telehealth services.
  • older adults – increasingly many services are being run online, so those without access to broadband and devices cannot benefit from those services or participate in community activities that require access. Communicating with family and friends during times of social distancing is less accessible without available digital technology.

How can the digital divide be closed?

Closing the divide is a significant challenge, but solutions are available.

These solutions include improving digital inclusion policies, provisions and tools that will encourage:

  • affordable, robust broadband internet service for all
  • internet-enabled devices that meet the needs of the user
  • access to digital training
  • reliable and accessible technical support
  • accessible online content design
  • applications designed to encourage self-sufficiency, participation and collaboration.

Distance learning
Digital benefits: online schoolwork
An older woman at home using a laptop.
Remote office working
An older woman in bed looking at a tablet consulting with a doctor online at home.
Teleheath services
Close-up top view of a man shopping online on a laptop while sitting at the wooden desk.
Online shopping

A digital age barrier

It is in older adults – those aged 60 and over – where new research is increasingly taking place in an attempt to help reduce the barriers that many older adults are facing because of a lack of access to, or confidence to use, digital resources.

The pandemic has only emphasised and increased any existing feelings of isolation and anxiety in certain groups of older people. During these times, were it not for a number of barriers reducing potential access, a range of digital resources could have beneficial outcomes to them.

Many adults have not necessarily had lifelong exposure to digital media and have had to adapt to incorporating it in their lives. 

Therefore, the level of technological efficiency gained in some adults might be affected by a number of factors.

These include:

  • a lack of access to digital resources and services
  • a lack of support to use digital resources and services
  • the cost of broadband and digital technology
  • concerns over digital security
  • low motivation or confidence to learn new skills
  • a decline in memory or spatial orientation
  • physical or mental disabilities.

Digital benefits for older people

The benefits digital resources can have on older – especially housebound – adults are extensive but include:

  • increasing access to health information
  • the use of telehealth resources
  • the convenience to shop and bank online
  • staying connected with friends and family using email or social networks
  • greater access to entertainment – streaming and gaming
  • improved mental health
  • greater feelings of independence
  • reduced social isolation and depression
  • increased sense of safety through personal monitoring devices.

A happy grandmother making a video call to relatives with a smartphone at home.
Staying connected with friends and family

Supportive digital tools for older adults

One possible psychological explanation for a digital divide in older adults is that a person's self-efficacy is influenced by their positive or negative involvement in a task.

Self-efficacy is an individual's belief in their capacity to execute behaviours necessary to produce specific performance targets.

Successful involvement in a task can increase a person's self-efficacy, while repeated difficulty or failure in a task – especially during early learning – can lower it. 

Older people often have less access to computers and the internet, so naturally they have a much lower self-efficacy when it comes to computers. This in turn expands the digital divide because without access to computers and the internet older individuals have fewer opportunities to find success with computer-related activities.

Therefore, one solution to help decrease the age gap in the digital divide is to provide training and improve access for older individuals for using different digital devices.

This would help older individuals get a foot in the door in this increasingly advancing digital age, which would then increase confidence using digital devices. 

This issue is at the heart of what the University's Generating Older Active Lives Digitally (GOALD) research project is interested about improving.

An older couple online shopping on a laptop.
Positive experiences and clear support increases digital self-efficacy
An older man training with dumbbells and using VR glasses.
Weight training with VR headset
A doctor helping an older woman receive therapy using VR.
Virtual reality therapy treatment
An elderly person wearing VR goggles to play a 3D game.
Playing a virtual reality game
VR 2
A resident using a VR headset

Generating Older Active Lives Digitally

Led by the University of Stirling’s Centre for Environment, Heritage and Policy with support from the Centre of Health Technology at Plymouth, the Generating Older Active Lives Digitally (GOALD) project uses intergenerational groups to examine how to design and deliver digital resources to provide and engage older people in structured activity programmes with the aim of improving their health and wellbeing.

GOALD has partnered with community groups based locally and nationally, as well as care homes, to create intergenerational co-production groups made up of older and younger participants to help increase the digital confidence and self-efficacy levels in older adults. The research team works with the different groups to explore the use and design of digital resources and assistive technologies.

GOALD provides the opportunity:

  • for intergenerational participants to provide feedback on technologies helping to shape aspects of future digital design
  • to partner with charity and community groups to seek to record the experiences of a diverse range of people
  • share findings with South West based business partners – small to medium-sized enterprises – to develop new technologies, product ideas and test design concepts.

The programme aims to contribute to the challenge mission of ensuring people can enjoy at least five extra healthy, independent, years of life by 2035, while narrowing the gap between the richest and poorest by enhancing an understanding of the aspirations, preferences and needs of the ageing population.

The GOALD project embraces two types of enhanced reality technologies.

  • Augmented Reality (AR) – This allows the user to move through a real life physical landscape, like a heritage site or football stadium and using a smart phone or headset they can see projected images onto certain ‘triggers’.
  • Immersive Reality (IR) – Whereas augmented reality is mainly transparent, VR is fully immersive, allowing you to see a completely different landscape or place than the one you are currently in.

GOALD is working across multiple disciplines with their partners to create scans of virtual reality landscapes. Spaces have been chosen with a rich heritage, which older participants may have a strong connection to but may find difficult to access – this includes Cornwall's Eden Project.

By developing these technologies GOALD helps to further the understanding of addressing the digital divide – especially in older people – by reducing previous inequalities in access to digital connectivity.

Augmented reality in nature
Augmented reality in nature

Project case study

Visiting the Eden Project at home

The University is co-supporting a project for care home residents to enjoy the Eden Project through virtual reality.

Led by Cornwall Care and the Eden Project itself and supported by GOALD, the work involves delivering 360° photos, live video streams and immersive augmented and virtual reality experiences. Cornwall Care home activity coordinators at Headlands in Carbis Bay, St Breock in Wadebridge and Woodland in St Austell have introduced the new technology.

Natasha Eden, Director of the Care Academy, explains how the work is already making a difference to residents. She said:

“It’s really lovely for our residents to be able to escape into a virtual world of wonderful global horticulture. Eden has been captured in all its moods from sunrise to sunset and being part of that, even virtually, is magical. Cornwall Care is committed to embracing technology for the benefit of those we care for and staying connected has never been more important for health and wellbeing.”
Eden is one of nine projects to be funded by the Department of Digital, Media, Culture and Sport in the UK’s 5G Testbeds and Trials programme. The £28.3m joint investment between Government and businesses is testing how 5G can be used to help British industry capitalise on the power of modern technology.

Dr Hannah Bradwell, Research Fellow on the GOALD project and part of the Centre for Health Technology at the University of Plymouth, said:

“The University’s Centre for Health Technology is really concerned with digital equity – in this case what you might call ‘digitally enabled equity’. This gives people who can no longer physically get to places, the ability to ‘teleport’ in and experience wonderful places like the Eden Project, so we’re really pleased to be involved.”

The Eden Project

Generating Older Active Lives Digitally (GOALD)

Participating in activities such as online games, virtual social gatherings and using assistive technologies allows us to stay connected to our communities and create meaningful experiences which positively impact our health and wellbeing. But how can we ensure these activities are accessible to older people?
The GOALD project is using intergenerational groups to examine how to design and deliver digital resources to provide and engage older people in structured activity programmes with the aim of improving their health and wellbeing.
Elderly person in wheelchair exercising using a virtual reality (VR) headset