One of the internet's greatest attributes is its potential to be a democratizing tool. As the most powerful networked technology ever created, by design, every user can have a platform and a loudspeaker.

Unlike previous communication technologies, like radio or television, which broadcast one message to the masses, with the rise of the internet came the ability for individuals to not only be part of an audience, but broadcasters in their own right.

This has had implications on everything from entertainment and how a star is born, to politics and how a revolution is organized.

But when it comes to this great virtue of the net, there is one simple truth that is often overlooked, especially by those of us westerners in the privileged position of scrolling through articles like this one on our smart phones: For the internet to be truly democratizing, everyone needs to have access to it, and currently, too many people don't, including women, children, marginalized people and Indigenous populations.

'Digital access is becoming the new dividing line, as millions of the children who could most benefit from digital technology are missing out,' - UNICEF report

This was a central theme in Children in a Digital World, a recent report published by UNICEF, which says that "digital access is becoming the new dividing line, as millions of the children who could most benefit from digital technology are missing out."

The premise of the report is that the advantages of the internet are plentiful: Digital technologies offer opportunities to learn, giving children not only access to information on issues that affect their communities, but the capacity to help solve them. Additionally, the internet provides economic opportunities by creating new kinds of work, and by providing new training opportunities and job-matching services.

But to reap those rewards, you need access, and according to UNICEF, approximately 346 million individuals — almost a third of youth world-wide — are not online.

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According to UNICEF, approximately 346 million individuals — almost a third of youth world-wide — are not online. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

So, who are the young people without access? The same social divides that plague life offline create barriers for online connection as well. Children in low-income countries are the least likely to have access to digital technology.

"This digital divide directly exacerbates the education divide already created by unequal access to quality education, or education at all, based on an individual's geographic location, gender, and economic status," says Children's media researcher Colleen Russo Johnson, co-director of the Children's Media Lab at Ryerson University.

According to Saadia Muzaffar, tech entrepreneur and founder of TechGirls Canada, it is essential that this issue be addressed. "We need to look at this divide with the same level of urgency as we would look at gender or race-based segregation in 2017 and beyond — as something that creates foundations of inequity that are insurmountable in these children's lifetimes," she says.

But this also represents an incredible opportunity, since the tools and technology exist to bring information and education to those who haven't previously had it; it's just a matter of access. "For the first time in human history, the barrier for entry to provide knowledge and education to millions — regardless of where they are — is actually within our reach," says Muzaffar. 

The gender gap

According to UNICEF, digital divides "mirror broader social economic divides," which means that in addition to those between rich and poor, and those with education and those without, there is also a notable and troubling gender gap.

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An Indian man surfs a Facebook page at an Internet cafe in New Delhi, India, Tuesday, Feb. 9, 2016. In India, less than one third of internet users are female. (Altaf Qadri/Associated Press)

Globally, 12 per cent more men than women used the internet in 2017. In India, less than one third of internet users are female.

Digital literacy is an essential tool for children growing up in a world powered by technology, but as Muzaffar explains, social biases impact not only who has access to digital technologies, but how they use and understand them. "Girls, especially racialized girls, and children with disabilities are pushed to the bottom of the pyramid of access."

Considering women are the primary caregivers and community nurturers in most developing nations, "keeping access to knowledge from them has a direct impact on the financial security, health, and wellbeing of their families and communities," says Muzaffar.

Tech equality at home

So, what impact does this have on Canadians?

For people living in our urban centres, it may be hard to imagine that not everyone in Canada has easy access to the internet. But as Muzaffar points out, that couldn't be further from the truth.

"Even in a developed nation like Canada, our remote and on-reserve Indigenous communities, refugees and new immigrant families are severely underserved when it comes to equitable access to the internet," she says.

Access is a luxury we often take for granted as we engage with the world around us from behind our screens. As the UNICEF report acknowledges, the internet can be a tool for good, offering opportunities to learn and share knowledge. But for it to reach its true potential to level playing fields around the world, first, we need to ensure that everyone gets to play.