Digital Inclusion Barometer
46% of Belgians aged between 16 and 74 are digitally vulnerable according to the new Digital Inclusion Barometer recently published by the King Baldwin Foundation. This is an increase of 4% compared with 2019 and includes the 7% of Belgians who do not use the internet and 39% of people with weak digital skills.
Weak digital skills
The worrying increase can be explained by the fact that people's digital skills are developing slowly, while our society has been rapidly digitalising since the coronavirus crisis. In a digital society, it is necessary to update digital skills and acquire new ones constantly. This does not happen for a lot of Belgians, especially the low-skilled. In this sense, the digital skills of Belgians have hardly improved or have even deteriorated, according to the Barometer.
The level of education increasingly appears to be a determining factor when it comes to digital skills. The number of people with weak digital skills increased by 18% among the low-educated, but only by 9% among the highly educated. Belgian internet users appear to score particularly poorly for skills related to online safety.
Better access to digital technologies
There is also good news, however. According to the Barometer, more citizens have access to the internet and digital tools. The number of internet connections has increased slightly against 2019 from 90% to 92%. This puts us exactly at the European average. But by comparison, 99% households in the Netherlands and Luxembourg have an internet connection.
In 2011, barely 77% of households had an internet connection. Big steps forward have consequently been taken. 95% of high-income households already had an internet connection in 2011, compared with barely 50% of lower-income households.
183,000 Belgian households still have to make do without an internet connection
This disparity has narrowed over the past decade but is unfortunately still visible. 18% of poor households still have to make do without an internet connection. For good measure that's about 183,000 households. Households with higher incomes are almost all connected to the internet.
Financially privileged families opted to buy laptop during the coronavirus crisis (an increase of 15%). Low-income families have obviously done so much less (a 4% increase).
Better access to essential services
The use of e-administration, e-commerce or e-health is steadily increasing. According to the barometer, this is mainly due to the fact that the non-digital alternative was temporarily abolished during the lockdowns.
The use of e-banking seems to have stagnated everywhere, except in Brussels, which registered a 10% increase compared with 2019. Internet banking is of course one of the most established forms of e-administration, although 27% more highly educated than less educated people appear to use it.
The study confirms that the digitalisation of financial services, accompanied by massive branch closures and the abolition of ATMs, leads to the financial exclusion of people with literacy difficulties as well as socio-economically and culturally vulnerable groups. The study moreover points out that these people often depend on the goodwill of their surroundings or frontline workers to help them access such assuredly essential services.
The gap between the higher educated people with a higher income and the lower educated with a lower income for access to other essential digital services is equally clear. Only in the area of e-administration has that gap narrowed by about 10%. But let us not be too optimistic by any measure. Barely 58% of the lower educated use the internet for administration and 64% of them do so for banking. Among the higher educated, the figures are 90% and 91% respectively.
The conclusion we can draw from this new Digital Inclusion Barometer is not all that rosy. The gap in digital skills and access to the digital society between the higher educated and lower educated segments remains far too wide. It is financially and socio-culturally vulnerable households that lag behind. For them, this only increases the risk of digital and social exclusion in a society that is rapidly digitalising.
Such figures strengthen our conviction that we are doing very important work with initiatives such as Digital for Youth and that DNS Belgium must continue its efforts to make the internet accessible in a safe and low-threshold manner for all people living in our country.
An initiative of the King Baldwin Foundation, the Digital Inclusion Barometer is the work of the research teams IACCHOS CIRTES of the Catholic University of Louvain and IMEC-SMIT of the (Dutch-language) Free University of Brussels. They relied on STATBEL data from 2019 and 2021.