Digital Inequality During a Pandemic: Quantitative Study of Differences in COVID-19–Related Internet Uses and Outcomes Among the General Population

Alexander J.A.M. van Deursen

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Background: The World Health Organization considers coronavirus disease (COVID-19) to be a public emergency threatening global health. During the crisis, the public’s need for web-based information and communication is a subject of focus. Digital inequality research has shown that internet access is not evenly distributed among the general population.

Objective: The aim of this study was to provide a timely understanding of how different people use the internet to meet their information and communication needs and the outcomes they gain from their internet use in relation to the COVID-19 pandemic. We also sought to reveal the extent to which gender, age, personality, health, literacy, education, economic and social resources, internet attitude, material access, internet access, and internet skills remain important factors in obtaining internet outcomes after people engage in the corresponding uses.

Methods: We used a web-based survey to draw upon a sample collected in the Netherlands. We obtained a dataset with 1733 respondents older than 18 years.

Results: Men are more likely to engage in COVID-19–related communication uses. Age is positively related to COVID-19–related information uses and negatively related to information and communication outcomes. Agreeableness is negatively related to both outcomes and to information uses. Neuroticism is positively related to both uses and to communication outcomes. Conscientiousness is not related to any of the uses or outcomes. Introversion is negatively related to communication outcomes. Finally, openness relates positively to all information uses and to both outcomes. Physical health has negative relationships with both outcomes. Health perception contributes positively to information uses and both outcomes. Traditional literacy has a positive relationship with information uses and both outcomes. Education has a positive relationship with information and communication uses. Economic and social resources played no roles. Internet attitude is positively related to information uses and outcomes but negatively related to communication uses and outcomes. Material access and internet access contributed to all uses and outcomes. Finally, several of the indicators and outcomes became insignificant after accounting for engagement in internet uses.

Conclusions: Digital inequality is a major concern among national and international scholars and policy makers. This contribution aimed to provide a broader understanding in the case of a major health pandemic by using the ongoing COVID-19 crisis as a context for empirical work. Several groups of people were identified as vulnerable, such as older people, less educated people, and people with physical health problems, low literacy levels, or low levels of internet skills. Generally, people who are already relatively advantaged are more likely to use the information and communication opportunities provided by the internet to their benefit in a health pandemic, while less advantaged individuals are less likely to benefit. Therefore, the COVID-19 crisis is also enforcing existing inequalities.
Original languageEnglish
Article numbere20073
JournalJournal of medical internet research
Issue number8
Publication statusPublished - 20 Aug 2020


  • COVID-19
  • digital inequality
  • internet use
  • Survey
  • internet skill


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