AUSTRALIANS face social and economic harm as the country's digital divide deepens, research from the Centre for Social Impact reveals.
The COVID-19 pandemic has rapidly pushed more services online, leaving the elderly and children from low-income households in the lurch.
An immediate state and federal government approach was needed to lessen the impact of the digital divide, the Centre for Social Impact's digital inclusion expert, Professor Jo Barraket, said.
"For the digitally excluded, people lacking effective and affordable internet access and digital skills, the transition is deepening social inequality," she said. "Given the loss of income suffered by those who have lost work and businesses as a result of the crisis, the number of digitally excluded may rise, widening the divide itself.
"It's likely to persist once the pandemic is over since many of the systems and practices transferred online are likely to remain digitally mediated."
At least 2.5 million Australians are not online, while 1.25 million households have no access to the internet, Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) data shows.
The Centre for Social Impact's research shows that older Australians and children in low-income households are most at risk of digital exclusion.
With the elderly asked to take extra precautions to isolate due to COVID-19, the link the internet could provide to the outside world was crucial, Professor Barraket said.
"A number of studies have already established a link between Internet connectivity and reduced social isolation in older people," she said.
"With home-based schooling conditions, children in low-income family households are likely to experience heightened educational disavantage, which is also extremely concerning."
Country Australians are also more likely to find themselves on the wrong side of the digital divide, with half a million households outside major cities reporting they have no internet access, ABS data shows.
The economic downturn caused by the pandemic is expected to force more people offline, increasing financial pressure for households and causing a decade's worth of challenges.
Centre for Social Impact researcher Dr Chris Wilson said this would drastically increase the number of digitally disadvantaged Australians.
The issue with digital inequality was when it translated into real life inequality, Dr Wilson said.
The lack of digital access led to unequal social, economic, civic, cultural and personal outcomes for people without internet access.
"We are concerned that an economic contraction may push people offline, or into forms of connectivity with greatly reduced utility," Dr Wilson said.