The Third-Level Digital Divide: Who Benefits Most from Being Online?

van Deursen, Alexander J. A. M.; Helsper, Ellen J.

Research into the explanations of digital inclusion has moved from investigations of skills and usage to tangible outcomes, what we label here as the third-level digital divide. There is a lack of theoretical development about which types of people are most likely to benefit. Understanding how achieving outcomes of internet use is linked to other types of (dis)advantage is one of the most complex aspects of digital inclusion research because very few reliable and valid measures have been developed. In the current study we took a first step toward creating an operational framework for measuring tangible outcomes of internet use and linking these to the inequalities identified by digital divide research.

After having proposed a classification for internet outcomes, we assessed these outcomes in a representative sample of the Dutch population.

Our overall conclusion in relation to the more general relationship between offline resources and third-level digital divides is that the internet remains more beneficial for those with higher social status, not in terms of how extensively they use the technology but in what they achieve as a result of this use for several important domains.

When information and services are offered online, the number of potential outcomes the internet has to offer increases. If individuals with higher social status are taking greater offline advantage from digital engagement than their lower status counterparts, existing offline inequalities could potentially be acerbated.