Tuesday, December 01, 2009

A Shift in the Digital Divide?

NPR has a short, but interesting story on the use of mobile devices by young people. Citing research by the Pew Internet and American Life Project, the story states that in regards to "robust" uses of mobile devices, "most of those hyperusers are young Latinos and blacks."

Chart from NPR, source data from Pew Internet and American Life Project, refers to above uses on mobile devices only

Now, the story is certainly not saying that the digital divide is no longer an issue, but it does bring up some interesting points. It attributes the higher and more sophisticated use of mobile devices among Latinos and blacks to four factors:
  • Networking teens that spread the use to older members of their ethnic group (happens in all ethnic groups, but faster among blacks and Latinos, perhaps due to the relatively higher proportion of young people)
  • Cheaper than a home connection (mobile upgrade cheaper than buying a computer and broadband)
  • Communication across borders (easier on both sides)
  • Convenience (the phone is always there, always gets a signal, no need to worry about wifi or battery)
I see some similarities to the cell phone versus landline access in countries like China and India, where lots of folks have gone straight from no phone to cell phone, skipping the landline phase. I wonder if we're seeing a similar leap among the traditional "have-nots" that have been on the "losing" side of the divide, where they are skipping the home computer/broadband phase and going straight to the mobile Internet phase.

mobile devices (think phone, not laptop) become the dominant way of accessing the Internet - and I think that's still very much up in the air (pun intended) - then this just may signal a coming shift in the digital divide that might mirror the demographic shifts in the United States. We still have a long way to go in eliminating access issues, but perhaps this is an encouraging sign that the divide might be narrowing.


  1. Those are some fascinating statistics, but I'm not really sure if I understand their argument about "Convenience." I'm curious as to what made them conclude that "Non-Hispanic whites" are less concerned about convenience.

  2. @BenH - I'm not sure the "convenience" argument was intended to differentiate between ethnic groups, just as another factor as to why all young people choose the mobile solution, which then factors into those other three arguments for the typically underrepresented ethnic groups.

  3. Pedagogical question: what are each of us doing to use this what this affords us in the classroom? I think I must answer that I need to add some new moves to my teaching repertoire including texting fluency.

  4. I wonder what will be considered a "tipping point" in terms of cell phones becoming ubiquitous communication devices? Perhaps when all the low end cell phones also have a web browser? But wait, do they already have that now?

    These demographic differences are very interesting. In terms of bridging divides, however, I'm interested in how cell phones are being used to help people communicate outside their existing F2F networks. That would seem to be more transformative than simply supporting communication with existing contacts.

  5. Interesting charts & thoughts - Thanks!

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  7. I'm not sure that this is as positive a phenomenon as you suggest. It reminds me of a divide which I was told exists in Japan, where females are more likely to use cell phones as communication devices (including texting, etc.), whereas males are more likely to use computers as productivity devices.

  8. @Mark - I think the positive part is the increased access for traditionally underserved populations. If the choices is between no access and this kind of access, I would choose this kind of access.

    I think the unknown is whether these types of devices evolve into something where it is easier to create/produce - I think they will. I also think that many of us are so "stuck" on text that we may be overlooking other ways that folks can create using these devices even now.