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Room for improvement in Dutch digital skills

The Netherlands has good telecommunications and IT networks that can be used safely and reliably, but there is room for improvement in digital skills among the Dutch

Prior to the Covid-19 coronavirus outbreak, the Rathenau Institute published its findings on the digital skills of Dutch people for technological citizenship. It found that, in general, the Dutch have good digital skills.

But despite this, Alexandra Vennekens, coordinator at the institute, said it saw certain groups being left behind, especially less educated, older people. She added that IT security was also better understood by younger people and those with a higher level of education.

According to the Telecom Agency, the government organisation of the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Climate that is responsible for the regulation of communications networks in the Netherlands, the country is “digitally awake”.

In its annual report, the organisation stated that there was a broad awareness that digitisation has a fundamental impact on daily life in the Netherlands, from superfast mobile connections and smart devices in the home, to robotisation in healthcare and autonomous cars.

Opportunities and vulnerabilities

But in addition to the many opportunities offered by digitisation and datafication, the Dutch Telecom Agency warned of new risks and vulnerabilities. New technologies raise new issues of dependency, reliability, security and privacy for citizens and businesses, it said.

“The fact that we have good digital skills does not automatically mean we are not at risk and that we no longer need to pay attention to those skills”
Alexandra Vennekens, Rathenau Institute

That is exactly what the Rathenau Institute concluded. Digital safety remains a point of attention for all Dutch people, said Vennekens.

“The fact that we have good digital skills does not automatically mean we are not at risk and that we no longer need to pay attention to those skills,” she added. “Young people in particular appear to be relatively easy in sharing personal data and logging into various sites and apps with credentials from, for example, Facebook or Google.”

In particular, the large differences in educational level and age category led the researchers to conclude that a segmented approach may be useful. The message to young people in this area may be different from that to older people, for example.

Resilience requires skills

The Netherlands has a strong position in Europe in the field of digital economy and society. In 2019, the country ranked third in the Digital Economy and Society Index. This index consists of five components: connectivity, skills, internet use, integration of digital technology and digital public services.

“In almost all these areas, we are third in Europe – only in terms of skills we have to settle for a fifth place. This is, as such, not a problem, but it shows that this issue needs continuous attention, as the development of new technologies also continues,” said Vennekens, adding that skills are also crucial for assessing risks and dealing with them better. “To be resilient, you need knowledge and skills. If you know the risks, but don’t know how to adapt your behaviour to them, it’s of little use to you.”

Basic skills

Rathenau Institute research shows that 79% of the Dutch have at least basic digital skills. This is well above the European Union average of 58%.

There are still major differences within age categories. It is striking that the older people are, the more educational level plays a role in the differences. For example, the difference in skills in the group of 16-24-year-olds by level of education is only 10 percentage points. But in the group of 55-74-year-olds the difference by level of education increases to 51 percentage points.

Digital government

The Dutch know how to find the government and local authorities via the internet, with 81% of them having been in contact in the past year. In the rest of Europe, that figure is 55%.

Many things that used to require people to go to the town hall can now be arranged online in the Netherlands. That’s efficient and easy, unless people don’t have the necessary digital skills.

What the researchers found particularly striking is that only a small proportion of Dutch people use the internet to participate in digital consultations on political topics (9%) or to post political opinions via blogs or social media (8%).

“These are important issues for technological citizenship. The Dutch make little use of these opportunities, we noticed. In these matters we are lagging behind the European average of 12%,” said Vennekens.

Online shopping and banking

Online banking is also very well established in the Netherlands, but that also requires digital skills to prevent consumers getting into financial trouble. The Dutch make a lot of use of online banking: 91%, compared with the European average of 58%. Young people in particular make use of it (95%), but older people aged between 55 and 74 also know their way around online banking (84%).

Online shopping in the Netherlands has grown strongly in recent years: 70% of Dutch people use it, compared with 53% across Europe. Although the Dutch are far ahead of the rest of Europe in this area, Vennekens warned of the risks. “Because we do use it at a large scale, it is important to understand the risks. This awareness should be raised in the Netherlands,” she said.

Awareness and responsibility

First of all, raising awareness is a responsibility of every citizen. Nowadays, many people still opt for convenience, as a result of which – often unintentionally – a lot of personal data is shared. In addition, there is a responsibility for companies and organisations to provide insight into what data they collect and what they subsequently do with it.

“Of course, there is a responsibility for the government,” said Vennekens. “What this research has shown, however, is that when the government does something in this area, different emphases may be placed for different age groups.”

She also emphasised that the research was done by means of self-reporting, in which respondents themselves indicate how good they are at something. “But we know from other studies that there can be big differences between someone’s perception and their actual behaviour. This implies that Dutch people might overestimate their digital skills and the safety of their online activities. Certainly in the latter area, this means the risks could be higher than we think at present.”

Further research

To gain more accurate insight into the digital skills of the Dutch, experimental research into people’s digital behaviour is needed. But Vennekens also considers it important that politics and government pay attention to the problem.

“It is crucial that the government, but also people themselves, become more aware of the risk of increasing inequality due to unequal skills to benefit from our ever more digital society. The skills of the Dutch, especially in the field of security, should improve. That really is a major concern,” she warned.

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