Digital Divide Is Greatest Difference Between Younger, Older Generations

The greatest global generational differences are in the digital divide, where young people are more reliant on social media and more convinced of the benefits of life online.

That is one of the key findings from a U.N.-Gallup survey that measures views on childhood by different generations in both wealthy and developing countries during the COVID-19 pandemic. Young people see the world very differently than members of older generations, according to the survey, which also shows young people are more optimistic about the future of the world than their older counterparts.

The poll was conducted by The Changing Childhood Project, an initiative that the humanitarian information portal ReliefWeb calls the first survey to ask multiple generations of people around the world about what it is like to be a child today. The survey was conducted during the first half of 2021, reaching more than 21,000 people in 21 countries. It looked at two different age groups: those 15-24 years old and those 40 and older to reveal generational divides.

Not all countries have equal access to the internet. Spain and the United Kingdom reported the highest levels of access, with over 95% of survey respondents saying they had access, while Zimbabwe ranked last at 42%. Countries where less than 80% had access were all considered low or lower-middle income by the World Bank, with the exception of Japan, which is considered high income. Countries where more than 80% had access were all considered high or upper-middle income, except Ukraine, which is considered lower-middle income.

In almost all countries, younger respondents had access to the internet at greater rates than older respondents, with the largest divide in Indonesia at 90% vs 56%, respectively. Respondents in countries with plentiful access to the internet are very active users. When asked how often they used the internet, the vast majority said they used it every single day. In countries with less access, their usage is more varied. After adjusting for their lower access, countries such as Bangladesh and India have users that are just as active. But in Zimbabwe, where 42% of respondents have access to the internet, only 16% of respondents said they used it “every day.” In almost all countries, younger respondents used the internet “every day” at greater rates than older respondents, with the largest divide in Japan at 96% versus 58%, respectively.

Nearly everyone agrees that digital technology is useful. When asked how much it helped children with their education, 65% of all respondents said it helps “a lot,” and an additional 27% said it at least helped “a little.” Despite their limited access, the highest percentage of agreement came from Zimbabwe, with 84% saying it helped “a lot” with education. France and Morocco were the only two countries where a majority of respondents didn’t say it helped so much. Generationally, most countries see young respondents say it helps with education “a lot” in greater numbers than older respondents.

But not always. In Germany, 62% of young respondents said it was that helpful, compared to 68% of older respondents. In the other categories, there’s less agreement on how helpful digital technology is. In Nigeria and Ukraine, more than 75% of respondents said that it helps a lot with children socializing. But in France, Morocco and Lebanon, each had their largest share of responses answering that it did not help at all. Generational disagreements are also present. Young people responded more than 20 percentage points higher than older respondents when saying digital technology helped children “a lot” for having fun in Indonesia and Ukraine, and for socializing in Japan.

Respondents overwhelmingly agreed that children using the internet carries serious risks, especially when it comes to a child being exposed to strangers. More than 70% of all respondents said it was “very risky” for children to even talk to someone online that they haven’t met in person before. Japan and Ukraine were the only countries where a majority didn’t say it was “very risky,” but a significant number said it was at least “somewhat risky.” In most countries, older respondents considered it “very risky” more than younger respondents – but not always. In Peru and Bangladesh, young respondents said it was “very risky” about 4 percentage points more than older respondents.

Children sharing personal information with someone online was considered the highest danger, with more than 80% of all respondents calling it “very risky.” Japan jumped from 48% to 91% once sharing personal information became a factor, a 43-percentage point increase. While other countries had a small number of respondents say it was “not risky at all” in these different types of interactions, Brazil was adamant about the risks – much fewer than 1% said there was no risk involved. Beyond the danger potentially posed by strangers, respondents warn that parents should have deep concerns about the kinds of experiences their children could face online. Most significantly, 86% percent of respondents said parents should be “very concerned” about their children being sexually harassed online, 84% about children seeing explicit content, and 80% about children being bullied online.

Children getting false information online was also top of mind at 79%. One of the largest generational differences present in the report was about the sources of information the different age groups used to stay up-to-date about current events. For young respondents, 45% said they used social media to stay up-to-date, compared to only 17% of older respondents. But not all countries saw young people relying so heavily on social media. In Zimbabwe, the radio was their primary source, and in Bangladesh, the television. Conversely, watching television was the source typically used by older respondents at 39% overall, compared to only 15% of young respondents. But in Mali, Zimbabwe and Nigeria, the radio was much preferred over TV. Indonesia saw the highest number of older respondents saying they used social media to stay informed, tied with television for their primary source.

Getting information is one thing, trusting it is another. Despite the younger generation’s reliance on social media as their primary source to stay up-to-date on current events, both generations chose social media as the least trustworthy source of all.

Both generations said they trusted experts more than their friends and family, but that they trusted those close to them over news outlets and religious organizations. The data also shows both groups don’t trust information coming from their national government as strongly as from other sources.

More from U.S. News

United States Missing From Countries with Highest Internet Usage

Coronavirus Pandemic Pushes Countries to Bridge the Digital Divide

Top 10 Countries for Technological Expertise, Ranked by Perception

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