(CN) — The Covid-19 pandemic has pushed the world toward a reliance on virtual education, but a new report shows that two-thirds of school-age children around the globe do not have internet access at home.
About 2.2 billion people aged 25 years or younger —including 1.3 billion children who are 3-17 years old— have no internet connection at home, according to a joint report released Monday by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the U.N.’s International Telecommunication Union (ITU) on Monday.
“That so many children and young people have no internet at home is more than a digital gap – it is a digital canyon,” UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore said in a statement.
Fore said that the widespread absence of internet access doesn’t just restrict the ability of young people to connect online.
“It prevents them from competing in the modern economy. It isolates them from the world. And in the event of school closures, such as those currently experienced by millions due to Covid-19, it causes them to lose out on education,” Fore said.
Monday’s report noted that up to 1.6 billion children worldwide were affected by school closures during the height of coronavirus-related lockdowns this year.
“Put bluntly: Lack of internet access is costing the next generation their futures,” Fore said.
UNICEF and ITU said that the pandemic caused “the largest mass disruption of education in modern history” as countries had to board up school buildings. The U.N. says there were 31 countries with nationwide school closures as of Nov. 30, with many others functioning under a partial lockdown.
About 250 million of the world’s children are still being impacted by school closures, according to UNICEF, and these students are heavily relying on digital learning.
A lack of internet connection for many students contributes further to, and is correlated with, existing disparities when it comes to accessing fair and equitable education opportunities.
The report found a major gap in internet access between rich and low-income communities, as well as between rural and urban areas.
“There are also geographic disparities within countries and across regions,” the organizations behind the report said.
According to the report, about 60% of school-age children in urban areas do not have internet access at home, compared to about 75% of children without internet in rural households.
“Connecting rural populations remains a formidable challenge,” ITU Secretary-General Houlin Zhao said in a statement on Monday.
Citing ITU’s 2020 data, he added that “large parts of rural areas are not covered with a mobile-broadband network, and fewer rural households have access to the internet.”
Especially stark, Zhao said, is the divide in mobile broadband and internet use between developed and developing countries.
The organizations found 6% of young people in low-income countries have internet access while 87% of young people in high-income countries have access at home.
For example, in West and Central Africa only 5% of young people have internet access at home, compared to the global average of 33%. Children in South Asia are also among those most affected by gap.
To help close the digital divide, UNICEF and ITU say they are working with governments, industries, and private and civil sector partners with the goal of connecting “every school and its surrounding community to the internet.”
The organizations say they are building investment cases for public and private funding to set up the connectivity infrastructure needed to address the gap in access.