Despite digital technologies having spread widely into different spheres of life and becoming part of young people’s everyday lives, digitalisation is also a source of inequality among young people. The excessive use of digital services and devices, as well as the risks posed by digital communication, are a more frequent topic of public debate than the benefits of digitalisation.
However, common to both the risks and opportunities is that they are unequally distributed among young people. Typically, the risks and the benefits accumulate in certain groups, while others either avoid serious risk or do not enjoy the benefits offered by digitalisation.
Digital competence as an asset and a protective factor
On the one hand, digital competence is an asset that allows young people to seize opportunities in their personal lives, studies and future employment. On the other hand, it is a protective factor that protects them from the risks of digitalisation when roaming the internet or, later on, navigating the digital job market as employees. From both perspectives, digital competence is a key civic skill in our increasingly digital society. While its foundation is built at school, studies indicate that leisure time plays an important role in accumulating these skills.
The first-level digital divide means differences between population groups in their access to ICT devices and the internet. This kind of inequality is typical of developing countries, but it is not wholly unknown in high-technology countries. In the latter, however, the differences mainly relate to the quality of devices and their usability in different situations.
High-technology Western countries are affected more by the second-level digital divide, which means differences in the competence and experience of use of different population groups. These are thought to cause the third-level digital divide, which means differences in the opportunities to utilise the experience and competence gained with digital devices more broadly in life, for example, to accumulate one’s own skills or financial benefit or increase one’ social networks.
Divergence in digital competence
In my doctoral dissertation, Education and inequality in digital opportunities, I examine the digital experiences of Finnish young people, as well as differences in their digital competence. In young people’s use of technology, competence and experience are intertwined, with experience generating digital competence and technology use in itself always calling for some degree of competence. The relationship that young people have with digital technology is created jointly by competence and experience. Each young person has an individual relationship with technology. For some, technology offers unlimited opportunities for scrutiny, self-fulfilment and learning, while for others, technology is primarily an obligatory tool for taking care of everyday tasks. Different views of technology have consequences that materialise as different levels of digital competence, experiences and attitudes to technology and its opportunities.
As is true of other population groups, differences in young people’s digital competence and habits reflect the traditional social structures, including age, gender, and education. Age does not have a negative impact on digital competence, as is sometimes incorrectly assumed. As young people grow older, their habits and competence usually become more diverse. This development continues far into adulthood, as the demands of studies and work continue to expand adults’ digital competence, specifically those with employment.
Technology has become a daily companion of both girls and boys, but there are nevertheless gendered differences in the digital competence and habits of use of young people. The differences are largely domain-specific and related to gendered preferences, which develop at an early childhood and adolescence stage. Especially the most advanced technological competence still seems to be predominantly possessed by boys.
In addition to emerging as varying levels of competence during adolescence, differences in digital habits and competence also significantly impact the educational choices of young people. Male-dominated fields attract students whose digital skills are, irrespective of gender, better than those of students in female-dominated fields. Among young people, digital inequality is thus specifically linked to gendered educational choices.
Leisure time as a resource in an increasingly digital society
Youth work reaches a large part of the age groups in whose lives digital arenas based on digital technologies and educational choices play a key role. Early adolescence is a particularly good time to broaden the gendered ideas that children and young people have of technology, competence and various career opportunities. The possibilities offered by digitalisation and role models that put a face on these possibilities are important for the educational choices of both girls and boys.
Educational choices are significantly influenced by young people’s views of their own competence. It is important to offer them opportunities to strengthen their competence to boost their self-confidence and help generate and maintain their interest in pursuing studies despite setbacks. Although technology might seem a suitable career for young people who enjoy playing digital games, even the most extensive gaming experiences will not alone carry them through studies if their competence is too narrow for the demands posed by studies.
Youth workers can challenge young people to expressly broaden their habits of use and, consequently, their competence. These help them develop positive attitudes and skills that benefit them broadly in life and experiences of their own proficiency.