How Does the Digital Divide Affect Online Therapy?

Online therapy is here to stay. And while people rave that it has brought mental healthcare to the fingertips of Americans, many clients still face barriers that prevent them from accessing these virtual care options. 

So has this trend actually improved access for marginalized communities, or is it just widening the digital divide?  

What is the ‘Digital Divide’? 

The digital divide refers to the difficulty for certain populations to use the Internet. It is related to the availability of and access to the hardware required to engage in activities like telehealth, such as computers, laptops, tablets, and smartphones. 

Poor broadband access and low digital literacy are additional factors that widen the gap. Even if they have access to a computer, more than 50 million Americans do not know how to use it. Those who lack digital literacy tend to be older, less educated, and black or Hispanic. Poor broadband access is most pronounced in states with a high percentage of rural residents, such as Alaska, Montana, and Nebraska. 

The fact that 79% of Americans use the internet leaves out the 21% – most often people belonging to communities of color – who are left behind. Some other recent statistics about access to technology include: 

Lack of access to desktop and laptop computers 

Only 69% of Black Americans and 67% of Hispanic Americans own a desktop or laptop computer. 

Lack of access to smartphones 

Most Americans today – 97% – own a cellphone of some kind. But only 61% of adults aged 65 and older own a smartphone. 

Lack of access to broadband 

Eight in ten White Americans have a broadband connection at home, while only 71% of Black Americans and 65% of Hispanic Americans can say the same. 

Additionally, many Americans living in poverty own smartphones but do not have broadband in their homes. Twenty-seven percent of people with annual incomes under $30,000 are ‘smartphone reliant,’ meaning they lack traditional home broadband services. 

How Online Therapy Benefits Marginalized Groups 

In the past, teletherapy has most often been used by people who have limited access to services, lack of transportation, or mobility issues. More recently, in response to the necessary transition to online therapy due to the pandemic, teletherapy has demonstrated that it can benefit several marginalized groups. 

As therapists build the online therapy system, which is likely here to stay, it’s essential to prioritize the needs of those who have been historically marginalized to ensure that mental health equity is achieved. 

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