Two thirds of the world's school-age children or 1.3 billion children aged three to 17 years old do not have internet connection at their homes, according to a new joint report from UNICEF and the International Telecommunication Union (ITU).
The report titled 'How Many Children and Youth Have Internet Access at Home?' notes a similar lack of access among young people aged 15-24 years old, with 759 million or 63 percent unconnected at home.
School-age children in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia are the most affected, with around nine in 10 children unconnected.
For those with no internet access, education can be out of reach, says a press release.
Nearly a quarter of a billion students worldwide are still affected by Covid-19 school closures, forcing hundreds of millions to rely on virtual learning.
"That so many children and young people have no internet at home is more than a digital gap –it is a digital canyon," said Henrietta Fore, UNICEF executive director.
"Lack of connectivity doesn't just limit children and young people's ability 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. Put bluntly: Lack of internet access is costing the next generation their futures," she said.
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 percent have internet connection at home, compared with only 16 percent from the poorest households.
The same disparity exists across country income level as well. Less than one in 20 school-age children from low-income countries have internet connection at home, compared with nearly nine in 10 from high-income countries.
"Connecting rural populations remains a formidable challenge," said ITU Secretary-General Houlin Zhao.
There are also geographic disparities within countries and across regions. Globally, around 60 percent 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.
"As shown by ITU's Measuring digital development: Facts and figures 2020, large parts of rural areas are not covered with a mobile-broadband network, and fewer rural households have access to the internet. The gap in mobile broadband adoption and internet use between developed and developing countries is especially large, putting the almost 1.3 billion school-age children mostly from low-income countries and rural regions at risk of missing out on their education because they lack access to the internet at home," said Houlin Zhao.
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.
Besides, mobile telephony 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 for various reasons such as the pressure to do chores or 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.