Why can’t technology alone solve the digital divide?

For some communities, the digital divide remains even after they have access to computers and high-speed Internet, new research shows.

A study of the Bhutanese refugee community in Columbus found that while more than 95% of the population has access to the Internet, few use it to connect with local resources and online news.

The study, conducted in Ohio during the height of stay-at-home orders during the COVID-19 pandemic, found that nearly three-quarters of respondents had never used the Internet for telehealth services.

The results showed that the digital divide is more than just a technological problem Jeffrey Cohenthe study’s lead author and professor in anthropology at Ohio State University.

“We can’t give people access to the Internet and say the problem is solved,” Cohen said.

“We found that there are social, cultural and environmental reasons that may prevent some communities from getting the full value of internet access.”

The study was recently published International Journal of Environmental Studies and Public Health.

For the study, the researchers worked closely with the members Central Ohio Bhutanese CommunityA non-profit organization that helps resettle Bhutanese refugees in the Columbus area.

The study included a community survey of 493 respondents, some of whom were surveyed online and more respondents who were interviewed in person.

Although most respondents lived in poverty – more than half had an annual income of less than $35,000 – 95.4% reported having access to the Internet.

More than 9 out of 10 respondents said access to digital technology was important, very important or extremely important to them.

But most had a very limited view of how they could use the Internet.

“For almost everyone we interviewed, the internet was how you communicated with your family through apps like Facebook or WhatsApp,” Cohen said. “For many, it was pretty much the only thing they used the internet for.”

Research shows that 82% keep in touch with friends and family, and 68% use social media. All other uses were less than 31%.

Not surprisingly, older people, those with less education, and those with poor English skills were less likely to use the Internet than others.

A common problem was that many refugees, especially those who are older and less educated, are not comfortable with the Internet.

“Of course, this is not only a matter of Bhutanese people. “Many people in our country see the Internet as a place where their children or grandchildren play games and go to classes.”

“They don’t see it as a place where they can access their health or find resources to help them in their daily lives.”

Language was another matter. While there is a local program to translate some important resources from English, the most common language spoken by Bhutanese refugees, into Nepali, many respondents said the translations were “mostly gibberish” and nearly impossible to understand, Cohen said.

Even less than 25% of English speakers describe themselves as excellent speakers.

“People had access to the internet and this information was available to them, but they couldn’t use it. It’s not a technological issue, but it’s part of the digital divide.”

As the study was conducted during the COVID-19 pandemic, one of the main areas of focus in the study was access to health care and information about COVID-19.

While telehealth services are one of the main ways to access health care during the pandemic, nearly 73% said they have never used the internet for this purpose.

And COVID-19 wasn’t the only health issue facing many of those surveyed.

“The Bhutanese community is at high risk for cardiometabolic diseases such as cardiovascular disease and diabetes, with approximately 72% of those surveyed having one or more symptoms of these conditions,” he said.

“If they’re not using telehealth to consult with doctors, that could put them at greater risk.”

Cohen said one of the key lessons from the research is that researchers need to reach out and partner with communities to ensure that proposed solutions to problems, including the digital divide, meet local needs.

The study was partially funded by National Institutes of Health and the Ohio State Social Justice Program.

Co-authors were Arati Maleku and Shambika Raut of the College of Social Work at Ohio State; Sudarshan Pyakurel of the Bhutanese Community of Central Ohio; Taku Suzuki of Denison University; and Francisco Alejandro Montiel Ishino of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences at NIH.

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