Internet Access, Social Risk Factors, and Web-Based Social Support Seeking Behavior: Assessing Correlates of the "Digital Divide" Across Neighborhoods in The State of Maryland

J Med Syst. 2021 Sep 19;45(11):94. doi: 10.1007/s10916-021-01769-w.


We aimed to empirically measure the degree to which there is a "digital divide" in terms of access to the internet at the small-area community level within the State of Maryland and the City of Baltimore and to assess the relationship and association of this divide with community-level SDOH risk factors, community-based social service agency location, and web-mediated support service seeking behavior. To assess the socio-economic characteristics of the neighborhoods across the state, we calculated the Area Deprivation Index (ADI) using the U.S. Census, American Community Survey (5-year estimates) of 2017. To assess the digital divide, at the community level, we used the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) data on the number of residential fixed Internet access service connections. We assessed the availability of and web-based access to community-based social service agencies using data provided by the "Aunt Bertha" information platform. We performed community and regional level descriptive and special analyses for ADI social risk factors, connectivity, and both the availability of and web-based searches for community-based social services. To help assess potential neighborhood linked factors associated with the rates of web-based social services searches by individuals in need, we applied logistic regression using generalized estimating equation modeling. Baltimore City contained more disadvantaged neighborhoods compared to other areas in Maryland. In Baltimore City, 20.3% of neighborhoods (defined by census block groups) were disadvantaged with ADI at the 90th percentile while only 6.6% of block groups across Maryland were in this disadvantaged category. Across the State, more than half of all census tracts had 801-1000 households (per 1000 households) with internet subscription. In contrast, in Baltimore City about half of all census tracts had only 401-600 of the households (per 1000 households) with internet subscriptions. Most block groups in Maryland and Baltimore City lacked access to social services facilities (61% of block groups at the 90th percentile of disadvantage in Maryland and 61.3% of block groups at the 90th percentile of disadvantage in Baltimore City). After adjusting for other variables, a 1% increase in the ADI measure of social disadvantage, resulting in a 1.7% increase in the number of individuals seeking social services. While more work is needed, our findings support the premise that the digital divide is closely associated with other SDOH factors. The policymakers must propose policies to address the digital divide on a national level and also in disadvantaged communities experiencing the digital divide in addition to other SDOH challenges.

Keywords: Community-based social services; Connected health; Digital divide; Internet access; Social determinants of health.

MeSH terms

  • Humans
  • Internet
  • Internet Access*
  • Residence Characteristics*
  • Risk Factors
  • Social Support