New York / Geneva – The International Telecommunication Union and UNICEF are calling for urgent investment to bridge a digital divide that is currently preventing children and young people from accessing digital learning and opportunities online.
Two-thirds of the world’s school-age children – or 1.3 billion children aged 3 to 17 – have no internet connection in their homes, according to a new joint report by UNICEF and the International Telecommunication Union (ITU).
The report How many children and young people have internet access at home? notices a similar lack of access among young people aged 15-24, with 759 million or 63 percent not home.
“The fact that so many children and young people do not have internet at home is more than a digital gap – it is a digital divide,” said Henrietta Fore, Executive Director of UNICEF. “Lack of connection not only limits the ability of children and young people to connect online. It prevents them from competing in the modern economy. It isolates them from the world. And in the case of school closures, such as those currently facing millions “because of COVID-19, it’s causing them to lose education. Frankly, lack of internet access is costing the next generation their future.”
Nearly a quarter of a billion students worldwide are still affected by COVID-19 school closures, forcing hundreds of millions of students to rely on virtual learning. For those with no internet access, education may be out of reach. Even before the pandemic, a growing group of young people had to learn fundamental, transferable, digital, job-specific and enterprise skills to compete in the 21st century economy.
The digital divide perpetuates inequalities that already divide countries and communities, the report said. Children and young people from the poorest households, rural and low-income countries fall even further behind their peers and have very little chance of ever catching up.
Worldwide, 58 percent of children in the richest households have Internet connection at home, compared to only 16 percent of the poorest households. The same difference also exists over the country’s revenue. Less than 1 in every 20 school-going children from low-income countries have internet connection at home, compared to almost 9 in ten from high-income countries.
“Linking rural populations remains a huge challenge,” said Houlin Zhao, secretary-general of the ITU. “As evidenced by ITU’s Measurement of Digital Development: Facts and Figures 2020, large parts of rural areas are not covered by a mobile broadband network, and fewer rural households have access to the Internet. The gap in the adoption of mobile ‘Broadband and internet use between developing and developing countries is particularly high, putting school-age children mostly from low-income countries and rural areas at risk of missing out on their education because they do not have access to the internet at home.’
There are also geographical differences in countries and regions. Worldwide, about 60 percent of school-going children in urban areas do not have Internet access at home, compared to about three-quarters of school-going children in rural households. School-age children in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia are most affected, and about 9 out of ten children are not connected.
Children of school-going age from 3 to 17 years are not at home
West and Central Africa
95% – 194 million
East and Southern Africa
88% – 191 million
88% – 449 million
Middle East and North Africa
75% – 89 million
Latin America and the Caribbean
49% – 74 million
Eastern Europe and Central Asia
42% – 36 million
East Asia and the Pacific
32% – 183 million
67% – 1.3 billion
Last year, UNICEF and ITU launched Giga, a global initiative to connect every school and its surrounding community to the internet. In collaboration with governments, Giga has now mapped more than 800,000 schools in 30 countries. With this data, Giga works with governments, industry, the civil sector and private sector partners to set up compelling investment cases for mixed public-private financing to build the connectivity infrastructure needed to implement digital learning solutions and other services.
The initiative works closely under the Reimagine Education initiative and in collaboration with Generation Unlimited. With its Reimagine Education initiative, UNICEF aims to address the learning crisis and transform education by giving children and young people equal access to quality digital learning. A key to achieving this is universal internet connection.
Based on these efforts and the importance of youth involvement, Generation Connect is an initiative launched by ITU to empower young people to get involved and participate in the digital world.
Although the numbers in the UNICEF-ITU report present a disturbing picture, the situation is likely to worsen due to constituent factors, such as affordability, security and low levels of digital skills. According to the latest ITU data, low digital skills remain an obstacle to meaningful participation in a digital society, while mobile telephony and internet access remain too expensive for many in the developing world due to large differences in purchasing power.
Even when children have a connection at home, they may not have access to it due to pressure to do work or to work, lack of adequate appliances in households, girls who have less or no access to the internet, or a lack of understanding of how to access opportunities online. There are also issues related to online safety, as parents may be insufficiently willing to keep their children safe.