Inequality in children’s access to the digital world

Author: Martha R. Villabona works at Subdirección General de Cooperación Territorial e Innovación Educativa of the Spanish Ministry of Education and Vocational Training, where she coordinates the area of multiple literacies.

Digital skills differ among individuals. This can be related to inequality of accessibility, affordability and/or availability of training resources that are necessary to participate in the digital world. These digital divides were even more evident during the COVID-19 pandemic, in which there were school closures. On one hand, education systems were not prepared for a precipitous digital transition 1, on the other hand, teachers, students and families did not have the necessary skills to develop a distance and online teaching-learning process 2.

The pandemic meant that digital inclusion had to be addressed as a matter of urgency, especially for certain most vulnerable populations such as: students who had socio-educational needs, special educational needs and learning difficulties. Also, students in rural areas were considered most vulnerable.

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

Digital inclusion has been defined in the educational field as the use of digital tools to expand access and improve the quality of teaching and learning in order to offer a fair and equitable education 3.

Universal accessibility

Based on recent data, 64% of people with disabilities aged 16 years or older have an Internet connection at home compared to 87.9% of people without disabilities 4. As stated, accessibility to virtual environments and information and communication technologies is a tool for exercising rights and a prerequisite for the full participation of people with disabilities on an equal footing with others.

In the school context, in order to achieve inclusion and meet the needs of all students, the principles of Universal Learning Design must be applied. This is an architectural concept from the late 1990s that was incorporated into the educational environment at the beginning of the 21st century. It is valid for achieving digital inclusion since digital technologies facilitate personalized learning, as long as their design responds to the different educational needs of students. For example, from the perspective of digital technology that favors inclusion, research suggests that digital tools using augmented reality can help all students to understand concepts and content because it incorporates different means of representation and forms of communication among students.

Access inequality

Access to digital devices and connectivity is conditioned by socioeconomic status and, in many cases, geographic location. Both factors can become barriers to a student’s school career. In the Analysis of the Survey of Living Conditions in Spain with a focus on children 5 was found that 7.4% of people under 18 years of age did not have a personal computer.

Providing sufficient digital infrastructure and access favors not only inclusion, but also equity in education. The integration of digital technologies in schools can compensate for inequalities derived from socioeconomic and cultural factors of the student body and reduce digital inequality. Similarly, in European Union countries, not all children have a computer at home and high-speed connectivity. While 97% of households with income in the highest income quartile had broadband Internet, only 74% of households in the lowest quartile had such a connection.

In education, high-speed internet is a necessity, since digital activities that take place in the school context (e.g., the use of videos) cannot be available to all due to inaccessibility to broadband. In this regard, the Digital Economy and Society Index (DESI) 2022 shows that the digital gap between rural and urban areas has narrowed in countries such as Spain, which has a very high capacity network coverage of 71.5% in rural areas compared to 64.2% the previous year 6. An improvement of access is therefore to be expected.

However, having connectivity and digital tools do not ensure full digital inclusion. Digital competence is necessary.

Digital competence

In relation to training, people with higher competencies tend to engage in a wider range of online activities, are able to participate to a greater extent in digital practices, and therefore can potentially benefit from these practices both for learning and for aspects of daily life. A person’s ability to learn to use technology is conditioned by their social and local context, i.e., the quality of access to technology is fundamental for minors as it allows them autonomy and greater online experience, which positively influences their level of competence 7.

This is directly related to access. Although the assumption that minors can learn on their own is problematic, it is more worrisome in the case of those from disadvantaged backgrounds because they do not have the same resources related to Internet use. This means that they are unable to gain online experience and therefore do not develop the necessary skills and motivation to use it, leaving them excluded and missing out on the opportunities of the digital world, as well as affecting their academic performance and emotional well-being.

On the other hand, teachers contribute to the digital inclusion of children when they effectively apply digital technologies and for this, they must have the appropriate digital competence. It is not enough for them to know their characteristics and advantages, but also their risks to prevent children and adolescents from being excluded from digital environments due to hate speech or online violence.

Digital inclusion in education goes beyond access and it is oriented towards an equitable approach to teaching for diversity, where technology can also be flexible and respond to the educational needs of all children and adolescents.


  1. OECD (2021), The State of School Education: One Year into the COVID Pandemic. Pp: 13-14. OECD Publishing. doi:10.1787/201dde84-en
  2. Gouëdard, P., B. Pont y R. Viennet (2020). Education responses to COVID-19: Implementing a way forward. OECD Education Working Papers, nº 224, OECD Publishing. París. doi: 10.1787/8e95f977-en
  3. European Commission (2021). Communication from the Commission to the European Parliament, the Council, the European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions. Union of equality: Strategy for the Rights of Persons with Disabilities 2021-2030.
  4. European Commission, D. et al. (2021). Enhancing learning through digital tools and practices: how digital technology in compulsory education can help promote inclusion: final report. Pp: 16. Publications Office
  5. Plataforma de la Infancia (2023). Análisis de la encuesta de condiciones de vida con enfoque de infancia 2023. Pp: 29.
  6. European Commission (2022). Spain in the digital Economy and Society Index. Pp: 9-10.
  7. Hargittai, E. (2010) Digital Na(t)ives? Variation in Internet Skills and Uses Among Members of the ‘Net Generation’. Sociological Inquiry 80 (1): 92–113. doi: 10.1111/j.1475-682X.2009.00317.x

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