A New Understanding of the Digital DivideOctober 24, 2011 | Mary Beth Hertz
As an urban teacher whose students are often lacking access to a computer and the Internet at home, I have strong opinions and experiences with the digital divide. I decided to do some research to see where my students fit into the current trends.
What is the digital divide?
If you ask most people to define the digital divide, most of them would answer that it has to do with those who have access to technology and those who don't. Ten years ago, they would have been right. However, over the last ten years access to technology has become more and more ubiquitous. In fact, in a 2010 Pew study (Technology Trends Among People of Color), laptop ownership among African Americans and whites broke about even and the percentage of Hispanic and African American Internet users, which was 11 percent in 2000, rose to 21 percent in 2010. A 2011 study showed that 83 percent of American adults own a cell phone (Americans and Their Cell Phones). Recent advances in cell phone technology mean that more and more people are using their phones to access the internet. As a result, many previously unconnected populations are connected through their phones. In fact, another Pew study ("For minorities, new 'digital divide' seen") reported that 51 percent of Hispanics, 46 percent of African Americans, and only 33 percent of whites used their phones to access the Internet.
So what does this all mean?
We are looking at a completely different kind of divide. While access has increased substantially, the kind of access varies. Most minorities in the Pew studies reported using their phone for accessing email and the Internet. In 2010 only 56 percent of African American households reported having broadband access compared to 67 percent of white households (Home Broadband 2010). This creates an entertainment vs. empowerment divide. As one of the Pew studies suggests, you can't fill out a job application through a cell phone or update your résumé on a game console (another way that many minorities report they access the Internet). The divide has shifted from an access issue to a kind of access divide.
Another group that is often left out of the conversation are Americans with disabilities. The divide for these citizens has always been there, and assistive technologies have definitely made access easier (if the people who need them can afford them), there are no laws stating that websites need to be accessible to people with disabilities. Even something as simple as a Captcha can prove to be a nightmare for someone with a disability. There are groups right now working on making navigation of important sites more accessible to Americans with disabilities.
Most of the reports about the digital divide center around racial and socio-economic differences (a 2010 study confirmed that household income is the greatest predictor of Internet use). However, for those families in rural areas, access is still the number one issue. In a study of groups and organizations and their use of tech, farm organizations were one of 3 reported groups for whom tech doesn't dominate at all. In addition, there are still 4 percent of teens reporting that they have no Internet or computer at home.
What are some solutions?
As the studies suggest, the problem isn't access, it's the kind of access. Families, particularly minority families, are lacking in home broadband access. Just recently, Comcast launched Internet Essentials, a low-cost Internet service for families receiving free school lunches that is available wherever Comcast provides services. In addition, communities need to ensure that libraries stay open, schools can provide access to their labs after school, and organizations need to plan their communication strategies around the connection style of the populations they serve.
States also need to invest in broadband infrastructure to bring broadband services to rural households. Companies like Comcast could provide mobile labs that could visit communities in the same way bookmobiles used to travel the country.
Sadly, the dichotomy of haves and have-nots is not going away any time soon, but as long as we understand what this divide looks like and how it evolves and changes, we can better address the underlying causes and provide resources for all US citizens, regardless of ethnicity, geography or socio-economic status.