Covid-19 uncovered a ‘digital divide’ among Hong Kong children

Appeared in Sing Tao Daily on 10 May 2023.

Governments worldwide responded to the Covid-19 pandemic, intending to slow the virus’s transmission and reduce the number of Covid-19 cases and related fatalities. Lockdowns and restrictions in the form of stay-at-home orders, closures of schools and non-essential businesses, and limiting social gatherings were among the most popular methods to combat Covid-19. Governments also limited travel, closed borders, and instituted quarantine procedures for visitors. Furthermore, expanded testing and contact tracing were adopted to identify and prevent virus transmission, while vaccine distribution programmes tried to build broad-scale immunity against the Coronavirus. Not to mention, governments implemented a variety of financial measures to assist families and companies affected by the pandemic. However, these solutions have been applied to varied degrees and with varying degrees of success.

Against this backdrop of diverse Covid-19 government responses, academic research has emerged that implies Covid-19 generally had a detrimental impact on children’s psychological well-being, mental health, and development, as well as family well-being and parental stress. Specifically, Covid-19 appears to have exacerbated the mental health of children and their families who were mentally healthy before the Covid-19 pandemic. In addition, according to several research studies, internal family dynamics, children’s increased anxiety due to COVID-19, and changes in children’s social relationships before and after COVID-19 best explain the numerous emotional and behavioural changes found in children during the societal lockdowns. Overall, public policy measures to restrict Covid-19 were found to have a considerable impact on family well-being, with significant implications for child development plans as part of preparedness and mitigation strategies for future health crises.

In Hong Kong, a recent online survey with over 400 children between 8 and 12 years of age conducted by Lingnan University in collaboration with the International Survey of Children’s Well-Being (Children’s Worlds) suggests a ‘digital divide’ among children has also significantly contributed to reductions in their psychological well-being.

The ‘digital divide’ is a term used to characterise the disparity between those with access to technology and digital services and those without such access. It refers to the contrast between those with the resources and abilities to fully engage in the digital world and those without the resources and skills to do so. The ‘digital divide’ can exist for a multitude of reasons, including a lack of access to computers, tablets, mobile phones, or the Internet, as well as limits in digital literacy, commonly understood as the ability to understand, evaluate, and use digital technology and communication tools effectively. Decades of research have shown how those members of society who are incapable or have difficulty accessing digital resources have increasingly experienced challenges in education, economic possibilities, access to health care, and other government services. As a result, the ‘digital divide’ presents a substantial social and economic issue with severe ramifications for affected individuals and communities.

During the Covid-19 outbreak, school lockdowns and the adoption of online learning pushed Hong Kong children to employ their existing digital tools and abilities to proceed with their studies—albeit with various degrees of success, according to the data collected.

Nearly all students had plenty of school resources in their homes: a place at home for study, computers or tablets, and devices for video classes. Moreover, around 85% of students reported that they ‘often’ or ‘always’ had access to the Internet during the Covid-19 pandemic. So far, so good. However, nearly half of the surveyed children also reported frequently encountering problems with their Internet connection during online classes: around one-third of all child respondents reported that they ‘often’ or ‘always’ lost their Internet connection for a whole day. Therefore, the researchers created an ‘Internet Accessibility Index’ based on three questions: “How often did you have access to the Internet”, “How often did you have problems with the Internet connection while having online classes” and “How often did it happen that you could not access the internet for a whole day”. The results of this index suggested that most children experienced some internet accessibility issues during their online learning but also that some children were affected by such issues much more severely than others.

The data obtained by Lingnan University experts also show that children’s digital skills to keep up with learning during online classes varied significantly. Only around half of all surveyed children “agreed a lot” or “totally agreed” that they knew how to get help when they experienced technical difficulties during online classes or did not understand the content of online classes, respectively. This finding also suggests that around half of all children did not “agree” with these statements and that their digital skills could be improved. Concerning their ability to continue learning from home, around four out of ten children did not “agree a lot” or “totally agree” that they could do so effectively.

Children’s experiences with school lives—and their potential problems with accessing necessary digital resources and skills—were also critical for their subjective well-being. Interestingly, child respondents were more worried about the changes in their lives as a student and that they may receive bad marks because of the Covid-19 situation than about their access to material resources or that people in their families may get infected with the Coronavirus. Analysis of the Lingnan survey also established that children’s satisfaction with the things they learned at school was a more important predictor of their subjective well-being compared with their satisfaction with their time use, material possessions at their home, and feelings of protection from Covid-19 after controlling for children’s gender, age, and other characteristics.

These findings about children’s varying access to digital resources and skills are surprising given Hong Kong’s significant progress toward becoming a world-leading “smart city”, which aims to effectively use advanced technology to optimise city operations and improve the quality of life for its residents. Several successful initiatives illustrate Hong Kong’s achievements. For example, the Hong Kong government’s rollout of a comprehensive public Wi-Fi network across the city has offered Wi-Fi connectivity in many public areas. In addition, installing an electronic payment system for public transportation established what is now known as ‘smart mobility’ in the city. The Hong Kong government has also created an innovative e-government site that provides various online services and transactions, allowing individuals to save time and decrease paperwork. In addition, Hong Kong has several “clever” buildings with intelligent features, including energy-efficient lighting and automatic temperature management systems.

Hong Kong’s current focus on further developing its smart city credentials—rightly and importantly—aims at improving urban living through innovative technology, including the Internet of Things (IoT), Big Data, and Artificial Intelligence (AI). However, suppose the goal of relevant stakeholders is to create a fully connected, efficient, and sustainable urban environment for Hong Kong citizens of all ages. In that case, the experience of Hong Kong children during Covid-19 suggests that addressing the “digital divide” should receive more attention and become a part of a more holistic equation bolstering Hong Kong’s ‘smart city’ successes.

Such initiatives might include further expenditures in high-speed internet network building, including through public-private partnerships and subsidies to internet service providers to encourage increased coverage in areas of the city where the “digital divide” is most prominent. The Hong Kong government may also subsidise skills training for people who lack basic technological knowledge, ensuring that everyone has the essential abilities to engage in the digital world fully. In addition, to increase digital accessibility, the Hong Kong government could provide more subsidies or support programmes that allow those families with children who cannot currently afford internet or mobile data costs to access these services at a low price. Lastly, the Hong Kong government could, through collaboration with non-profit organisations and social enterprises already active within vulnerable communities, fund digital literacy and other bespoke education programmes to help children and young people with limited access to digital resources to become more informed and effective users of digital technologies.