So many of us can barely put down our smartphones to have face-to-face interactions. But millions of Americans — and thousands of San Franciscans — are unable to take advantage of the wealth of digital innovation in this country. Twenty-nine percent of Americans lack basic digital literacy skills, such as knowing how to search online or send an email. Specifically, low-income and older adults use smartphones and other digital devices at much lower rates than the general public.
We cannot continue to ignore the enormity of this digital divide, or pretend that it will disappear over time. Instead, we need to recognize and invest in the groups who are filling in these critical gaps. This week is Connect with Tech Week, an annual event filled with classes, workshops, and special sessions hosted by the San Francisco Public Library to get people comfortable using and excited about technology. For those of us immersed in the tech mecca of San Francisco, this event may feel outdated. But for those of us who work with low-income individuals and technology every day, we know that this yearly event amplifies critical and underfunded work by libraries and other organizations to reduce the digital divide.
The access and skills needed to navigate the digital world have evolved from being just an option for communication and task completion to becoming a core component of what it means to participate in society today. Internet access and skills are crucial to finding the phone number or hours of local stores, applying to jobs, and securing housing. It’s even essential for health – having a device at home can allow patients to electronically communicate with healthcare providers (rather than taking burdensome trips to clinics) and can even be used to remotely adjust a new medicine or treatment.
For some, the main barrier is the skills needed to effectively use digital devices. For others, it is a lack of access to broadband or digital devices themselves. And while these barriers may be most pronounced for older adults who did not grow up using technology, the problems are not erased when examining trends among younger demographics. A third of low-income US families lack Internet access at home, presenting challenges for a substantial portion of teenagers to complete school assignments online. If we in San Francisco want to claim that we are the clear global leader in technology design and innovation, we must address these inequalities as we continue to invest billions in digital health and other tech endeavors.
As a researcher who studies how digital tools can help people prevent and manage disease, I see the clear potential for technology to improve people’s health. But we cannot reach these health goals without a level foundation of more equitable digital skills and access. That’s why I am supporting the library and other community-based organizations like Community Tech Network and Little Brothers Friends of the Elderly, and I hope you will too.
Courtney Lyles, PhD, is an Associate Professor of Medicine at the University of California San Francisco based at Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital in the Center for Vulnerable Populations, and a collaborator in The OpEd Project.