The latest national digital inclusion report shows many groups continue to miss out on the benefits of being online.

The 2020 Australian Digital Inclusion Index (ADII), funded by Telstra, says digital inequality is made more pronounced by the social and economic impact of COVID-19, and steps will need to be taken to ensure that those facing financial hardship do not fall into the digital divide.

While the vast majority of Australians are now online, there are still 2.5 million Australians who are not accessing the internet at all.

“The impact of COVID-19, with its shutdown of schools, services and social facilities, has accelerated the shift to digital alternatives and, while that brings benefit to many, there are still too many Australians facing real barriers to online participation,” Telstra Group Executive Lyndall Stoyles says.

The ADII is an annual study produced by RMIT and Swinburne University in partnership with Telstra and powered by Roy Morgan data.

The research explores digital inclusion in terms of three dimensions – access, affordability and digital ability. It gives a comprehensive assessment of digital inclusion in Australia and outlines the challenges Australia faces in closing the digital divide.

The 2020 edition finds COVID-19 has been highly disruptive for students in low-income family households.

Students from households who earn less than $35,000 per annum record an Index score more than 10 points below the national average, and 15.5 points lower than families with school-aged children in other income brackets. They are often lacking access to technology options, and suitable devices, pay a larger proportion of their household income for digital services, and have lower digital skills.

The report also found low levels of digital inclusion for older Australians increase the risks of social isolation and loneliness.

Many older Australians are not online at all, while those that are report lower levels of effective and affordable internet access and digital skills. Older Australians are less able to use the internet as an alternative to face-to-face social interactions curtailed by COVID-19 physical distancing measures – putting older Australians at a greater risk of social isolation and loneliness.

Although they are not the only digitally excluded group in this situation, two factors may further exacerbate the risks confronting older Australians. First, older Australians are much more likely to live alone and thereby rely on the types of public social contact restricted by the COVID-19 measures. Second, because of their heightened vulnerability to COVID-19, this cohort has been encouraged to be particularly vigilant in reducing their physical social contact.

“The events of 2020 have really shone a light on how vital digital inclusion is,” says Professor Jo Barraket.

“It’s more important than ever that people who typically experience barriers to inclusion are better supported to participate through affordable and accessible technologies and the abilities to use these well.”