Two thirds of the world’s school-age children have no internet access at home, new UNICEF-ITU report says

The International Telecommunication Union and UNICEF call for urgent investment to bridge a digital divide currently preventing children and young people from accessing quality digital learning and opportunities online

01 December 2020
Bangladesh. Children browse the internet through a smartphone.
UNICEF Bangladesh/2019/Sujan

NEW YORK/GENEVA/DHAKA, 1 December 2020 – Two thirds of the world’s school-age children – or 1.3 billion children aged 3 to 17 years old – do not have internet connection in their homes, according to a new joint report from UNICEF and the International Telecommunication Union (ITU).

The report How Many Children and Youth Have Internet Access at Home? notes that globally two-thirds of school-age children have no internet access at home. There is a similar lack of access among young people aged 15-24 years old, with 759 million or 63 per cent of young people unconnected at home.

According to the Multiple-Indicator Cluster Survey by the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics in 2019, 62 per cent of the households in Bangladesh do not have internet access at home. At the same time, this is a national average, and there is a large difference in internet access depending on the households’ socioeconomic backgrounds. Only 8.7 per cent of the poorest 20 per cent households in Bangladesh have internet access at home as compared with 75.3 per cent of the richest 20 per cent households. When it comes to television – another main medium for distance learning – the percentage of households owning a television is 51 per cent nationally. At the same time, only 4.8 per cent for the poorest 20 per cent households own a television as compared with 90.2 per cent of the richest 20 per cent households.

“Children without access to these means of distance learning are bearing the brunt of the digital divide and inequity. They have less access to learning opportunities during the pandemic, putting their education and future in jeopardy. This divide exacerbates the pre-existing inequalities. It can perpetuate the vicious cycle of poverty and disparity from one generation to the next, with children becoming its transmission belt,” said Tomoo Hozumi, UNICEF Representative in Bangladesh.

Around 42 million children are affected by COVID-19 school closures in Bangladesh. For those with no access to internet or TV, education can effectively be out of reach. Even before the pandemic, a growing cohort of young people needed to learn foundational, transferable, digital, job-specific and entrepreneurial skills to compete in the 21st century economy.

The digital divide is perpetuating inequalities that already divide countries and communities, the report notes. Children and young people from the poorest households, rural and lower income states are falling even further behind their peers and are left with very little opportunity to ever catch up.

Globally, among school-age children from richest households, 58 per cent have internet connection at home, compared with only 16 per cent from the poorest households. The same disparity exists across country income level as well. Less than 1 in 20 school-age children from low-income countries have internet connection at home, compared with nearly 9 in 10 from high-income countries.

There are also geographic disparities within countries and across regions. Globally, around 60 per cent of school-age children in urban areas do not have internet access at home, compared with around three-quarters of school-age children in rural households. School-age children in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia are the most affected, with around 9 in 10 children unconnected.

Region 

School-age children 3-17 years old unconnected at home

West and Central Africa 

95% - 194 million 

East and Southern Africa 

88%    - 191 million

South Asia 

88% - 449 million

Middle East and North Africa 

75% - 89 million

Latin America and the Caribbean 

49% - 74 million

Eastern Europe and Central Asia 

42% - 36 million

East Asia and the Pacific 

32% - 183 million

Global 

67% - 1.3 billion

Last year, UNICEF and ITU launched Giga, a global initiative to connect every school and its surrounding community to the Internet. Working with governments, Giga has now mapped over 800,000 schools in 30 countries. With this data, Giga works with governments, industry, civil sector, and private sector partners to craft compelling investment cases for blended public-private funding to build the connectivity infrastructure needed to deploy digital learning solutions and other services.

The initiative is now collaborating under the Reimagine Education initiative and in coordination with Generation Unlimited. Through its Reimagine Education initiative, UNICEF aims to address the learning crisis and transform education by giving children and young people equal access to quality digital learning. A key to achieving this is universal internet connectivity.

Building on these efforts and on the importance of youth engagement, Generation Connect is an initiative launched by ITU to empower young people to engage and participate in the digital world. 

Although the numbers in the UNICEF-ITU report present an alarming picture, the situation is likely worse due to compounding factors, such as affordability, safety and low levels of digital skills. According to the latest ITU data, low digital skills remain a barrier to meaningful participation in a digital society, while mobile telephone and internet access remain too expensive for many in the developing world as the result of vast disparities in purchasing power.

Even when children have a connection at home, they may not be able to access it because of the pressure to do household chores or to work, lack of sufficient devices in the households, girls being permitted less or no internet access, or a lack of understanding of how to access opportunities online. There are also issues related to online safety since parents may be inadequately prepared to keep their children safe.

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Notes to editors: 

The report uses a globally representative analysis on the availability of internet connection in households with children and young people aged between 0-25 years old, with data from more than 85 countries.

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About ITU

The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) is the United Nations specialized agency for information and communication technologies (ICTs), driving innovation in ICTs together with 193 Member States and a membership of over 900 companies, universities, and international and regional organizations. Established over 150 years ago in 1865, ITU is the intergovernmental body responsible for coordinating the shared global use of the radio spectrum, promoting international cooperation in assigning satellite orbits, improving communication infrastructure in the developing world, and establishing the worldwide standards that foster seamless interconnection of a vast range of communications systems. From broadband networks to cutting-edge wireless technologies, aeronautical and maritime navigation, radio astronomy, oceanographic and satellite-based earth monitoring as well as converging fixed-mobile phone, internet and broadcasting technologies, ITU is committed to connecting the world. For more information, visit www.itu.int.

About Generation Unlimited

Generation Unlimited (GenU) is a global multi-sector partnership to meet the urgent need for expanded education, training and employment opportunities for young people, aged 10 to 24, on an unprecedented scale. www.generationunlimited.org

About Giga
Launched by ITU and UNICEF in 2019, Giga is a global initiative to connect every school to the internet and every young person to information, opportunity and choice. It ​aims to ensure that every child is equipped with the digital public goods they need, and empowered to shape the future they want. For more information, visit www.gigaconnect.org.

Media contacts

Faria Selim
UNICEF Bangladesh
Tel: +8809604107077
Georgina Thompson
UNICEF New York
Tel: +1 917 238 1559

About UNICEF

UNICEF promotes the rights and wellbeing of every child, in everything we do. Together with our partners, we work in 190 countries and territories to translate that commitment into practical action, focusing special effort on reaching the most vulnerable and excluded children, to the benefit of all children, everywhere.

For more information about UNICEF and its work for children, visit www.unicef.org.bd

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