What is the digital divide?

The term is used to describe an economic inequality between groups, where some have access to information and communication technologies and others don’t. But it’s also used to describe the knowledge gap between parents and their children.

The gaps created by inadequate infrastructure and a lack of basic knowledge about the digital world are two major obstacles to genuine mass connectivity. In Britain, more and more of us have internet access every day. But late adopters don’t always have the knowledge they need to use the internet to its full extent.

The impact of the digital divide on British families 

Research by Nominet reveals that younger parents aged 18-35 tend to be more aware of the online world than older parents. It makes sense; since the mid-1990s the internet has revolutionised almost every aspect of our culture, with near-instant communication, interactive video communications, discussion forums, blogs, social networks and ecommerce. And just like the mobile phone, early adopters tended to be younger, leaving older generations behind.

As such, some parents have been left stranded. Their children know a great deal more about how to drive a computer, tablet, laptop or smartphone than they do. Today’s children and teenagers have grown up with digital technologies, and they take to new developments perfectly naturally, accepting them as the norm and often leaving their parents behind.

The knowledge gap between parents and children

Children’s online lives are often a complete mystery to their parents. This can pose problems, because unless you have the knowledge, you can’t keep your children safe.

It’s difficult to keep your children secure when you don’t understand what they’re doing online. But once you understand the basics of cyberbullying, you can spot the signs. When you understand netspeak, you can keep an eye on your children’s online activities and stop potential abuse in its tracks. When you know how a computer works, you can make sure the family’s machines are set up to minimise the risk of ID theft, scammers and computer viruses.

Teen socialising in a completely different world

Before the net, it was easier to keep tabs on what your teenagers were up to. Now they can get into trouble without even leaving the house. Cyberbullying has changed the face of bullying forever, driving it underground onto social networks. Email means that anyone who gets hold of your teen’s email address can send them messages. So much of children’s lives is digital, which by nature is more secretive and private, less open and obvious than ‘real’ life.

The language bit

One of the most profound effects of the digital divide is the use of netspeak, or text speak. Teens use it to communicate faster, more easily, privately and in a way many of them feel is ‘cool’. Another key survey by Nominet revealed that 81% of teens aged between 13 and 18 use netspeak regularly. 86% of the teens surveyed said they used it because it’s easy to type or text, 41% because their friends do, 25% because it’s ‘cool’, and 12% said they use it because it’s the way they speak in ‘real’ life.

10-12 year olds seem to be more influenced by their peers than teenagers, with 60% of pre-teen children using shortened words because their friends do, compared to just 24% of 16-18 year olds who use it because of peer pressure.

Netspeak is great fun, and the ability to communicate so quickly and efficiently translates perfectly online. As a parent, it’s helpful to know the most popular terms so that you can help keep your teen safe and communicate with them on their terms… although many teens find it horribly embarrassing when their parents try to join in!

Instant friends

It has never been so easy to make friends, which comes with risks as well as advantages. Teens can hook up with new ‘friends’ in seconds, at the click of a button, without meeting in person, which is a fantastic thing. Whereas their parents are likely to be more circumspect. The digital divide highlights the profound social differences of pre- and post-net socialising, which also divides the generations even though late adopters are coming on board all the time.

Filming your big night out

The digital divide also marks profound differences in the way we experience entertainment. Take a look at Glastonbury photos from five years ago and you’ll see crowds of people watching bands play. Look at this year’s images and you’ll see thousands of people filming gigs on their smartphones rather than watching the action.

Different manners

Teens see their gadgets as extensions of themselves, and it’s changing the way we behave in all sorts of ways. Take manners, in the news recently as supermarket checkout staff refused to serve a woman while she was on her mobile. Many teens are perfectly comfortable using their phones in cinemas, theatres, restaurants and when they’re with their friends, which is often seen as rude by older people.

Netiquette is constantly evolving, with highly public discussions about when it’s okay to use gadgets and when it’s considered polite to switch off. Millions of teens regularly multi-task, texting and playing online while watching TV or while chatting with friends. And there’s some evidence that many teenagers aren’t getting the sleep they need because their phones wake them up at all hours with messages and updates. The teen and adult worlds have never been so different.

Closing the digital divide

As older generations die out and younger generations age, the digital divide will close. As more older people get on board, they will help close the gap between those who are immersed in the digital world and those who live outside it. Nobody can predict how things will end up. But one thing is certain – there’s more change on the horizon.