Studying internet use by kids during the pandemic

The latest edition of Telecom Policy included an article (“Determinants of internet use by school-age children: The challenges for Mexico during the COVID-19 pandemic” [pdf, 1.5MB]) that I found interesting. Although the study examined challenges in a developing country, I think there are lessons for us in Canada.

We often associate the challenges of universal internet with access, a supply-side issue; and with adoption, a demand-side issue. The Mexican study examines other demand-side issues and also discusses a third dimension, benefits, to examine factors impacting the utility of internet use.

I have written frequently about most governments’ focus on access, developing and funding programs to stimulate investment in infrastructure to ensure that broadband service is available universally.

As Canada moves toward addressing the second tier, we have seen industry developed programs, designed to aid with broadband affordability. However, it is important to note that the study found income isn’t the only factor impacting adoption, as operators of Canada’s low-income broadband programs can attest. As I wrote in “The broadband divide’s little secret”, lower prices aren’t enough to get people to connect.

The Mexico study found that internet access and use depends on level of schooling, economic status, digital skills, and place of residence, as well as the presence of electronic devices and infomediaries in the household. As discussed in the paper, there are “two essential factors that determine the acceptance of technology: perceived utility; and, ease of use.” As a result, the paper should encourage us to examine other factors to stimulate internet adoption, and expand the way we look at some of the typical variables.

For example, income isn’t simply a determinant of affordability of internet access services; income also influences the ability to buy goods and services over the internet, a key part of the perceived utility required for technology acceptance. Similarly, increasing digital skills capabilities helps to diversify the user’s online activities “such as electronic commerce, banking, information seeking, and interaction with the government.” The paper discusses the value of “infomediaries” defined as people who are available (preferably within the household) to facilitate internet use for those lacking the skills to do so on their own.

The study shows that use of the internet at school can be an important factor for household adoption, use, and benefits. While most of the private sector programs associated with Connecting Families targeted affordable broadband for low-income households with children, we might wonder if more can be done, perhaps integrating such programs within the school system to help develop the school kids as household infomediaries.

Can schools and school-kids help sell the utility of broadband connectivity to technology-wary parents in underserved households?

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