In many countries, young people from wealthy and poor backgrounds spend roughly the same amount of time online. But it’s how they’re using the internet, not how long they’re using it that really matters.

This is according to new research from the OECD, which found that richer teenagers were more likely to use the internet to search for information or to read news rather than to chat or play video games.

Image: OECD

The report, based on data from more than 40 countries, concludes that even when all teenagers, rich and poor, have equal access to the internet, a “digital divide” remains in how they use technology.

In 2012, disadvantaged students spent at least as much time online as their wealthier peers, on average across OECD countries. And in 21 out of 42 countries and economies, they spent more time on the internet.

In five Nordic countries, as well as in Hong Kong, the Netherlands and Switzerland, more than 98% of disadvantaged young people have internet access at home.

By contrast, in some low- and middle-income countries the most disadvantaged teenagers are only able to get online at school, if at all. This applies to 50% of students in Turkey, 45% in Mexico, 40% in Jordan and 38% in Chile and Costa Rica.

But in all countries, what students do with computers, from using e-mail to reading news, is directly linked to their “socio-economic status” with inequality continuing, even in countries where all young people have easy access to the internet.

“Equal access does imply equal opportunities,” says the report, which goes on to point out that while anyone can use the internet to learn about the world, improve their skills or apply for a well-paid job, disadvantaged students are less likely to be aware of the opportunities that digital technology offers.

“They may not have the knowledge or skills required to turn online opportunities into real opportunities,” the report says.

The data for the study was gathered as part of the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), a worldwide study of 15-year-old students’ performance in mathematics, science and reading.

PISA results show that socio-economic differences in how young people use the internet are strongly related to their academic performance.

While the report acknowledges efforts to close gaps in internet access, it argues that developing all young people’s literacy skills would help to reduce digital inequality.

"Ensuring that every child attains a baseline level of proficiency in reading will do more to create equal opportunities in a digital world than will expanding or subsidising access to high-tech devices and services," it says.