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Defining and Combating the Digital Divide

Woman sitting at computer

What Contributes to the Digital Divide?

By looking at who has access to the internet and how it is used, the digital gap can be dissected. Analyzing access to the internet via broadband and mobile devices can give insight into how availability is broken down by demographic.

Broadband adoption varies across demographic groups. Internet usage is nearly ubiquitously present across certain demographics such as college graduates and those from high-income houses. Lower levels of education and income, racial minorities and rural or inner-city residents are found to be the least likely to have broadband services in their homes. This correlates with the increasing share of Americans who use smartphones as their primary access point. One in five American adults are smartphone-only internet users. Reliance on smartphones for online access is more common among younger adults, non-whites and lower-income Americans.

While smartphones are being adopted and provide a gateway to technology and information, the rising cost of data plans and the lack of performance ability for many tasks and apps prevent smartphones from combating the digital divide.

Income

Though smartphones have helped bring internet access to many Americans, they are still not accessible to all, nor do they provide adequate access to rising technology. A survey from the Pew Research Center found that the digital divide persists even as lower-income Americans make gains in tech adoption. The survey also found the following statistics:

Out of adults with an income below $30,000:

  • 29% do not own a smartphone
  • 44% do not have broadband services at home
  • 46% do not have a traditional computer

By comparison, higher-income Americans are more likely to have multiple devices that provide online access. Roughly 64% of high-earning households have broadband services, smartphones, a computer (desktop or laptop) and a tablet. These technologies are found to be omnipresent in households earning upwards of $100,000 or more a year, compared to 18% of those living in lower-income households.

Race

Though smartphones help bridge some digital gaps, they do not sufficiently provide a solution to the divide. The ownership of smartphones is becoming more equivalent across whites, blacks and Hispanics/Latinx populations — roughly 8 in 10 across all groups. Reliance on smartphones for a number of activities such as looking for work or seeking health information is more often found in black and Hispanic/Latinx communities. When it comes to online access options, 25% of Hispanics/Latinx, 23% of blacks and only 12% of whites considered themselves “smartphone-only.”

Broadband access via digital tools continues to remain disproportionate by group. Reports of ownership of desktops or laptops by group include:

  • 82% of whites
  • 58% of blacks
  • 57% of Hispanics/Latinx

Education

A lack of digital connectivity and access to digital technologies at home has large consequences for students. 35% of teens say they have to do their homework on their cell phone, and nearly one in five teens can’t finish their homework because of the digital divide. This outcome is known as the “homework gap” and is found to most greatly impact lower-income households and people of color. The Pew Research Center found that a lack of reliable access to a computer or internet connection negatively impacts or prohibits homework completion for:

  • 17% of teens overall
  • 25% of black teens
  • 6% of Hispanic/Latinx teens
  • 4% of white teens

The homework gap for teens is also a product of income level. 24% of teens with a family income of less than $30,000 mention that a lack of reliable digital access prohibits homework completion, in comparison to only 9% of teens who live in households earning $75,000 or more.

Lower-income students often face the digital divide in classrooms in which teachers lack the resources and tech literacy needed to provide students STEM/STEAM education and learning opportunities.

Location

Accessibility to the internet and digital technology is also disproportionate by location. Roughly 25% of rural adults found that access to high-speed internet is a major problem in their area, followed by 13% of adults from urban areas, and only 9% of adults in suburban areas. While rural Americans have made large gains by adopting digital technology, the digital gap between rural and non-rural America persists. People in rural areas are still less likely to own smartphones and have home broadband internet. Daily internet use also differs by location:

76% of adult rural residents say they use the internet on a daily basis, compared to 83% of adults in urban areas and 96% of adults in suburban areas.

Conversely, 15% of rural adults say they never go online, compared to only 9% who live in urban communities and mere 6% in suburban areas.

The low level of technology adoption among rural residents may be partially attributed to the unique features of rural life. It may also be attributed to the significantly lower internet access and lack of internet speed in rural areas.

Solutions to the Digital Divide

With the unyielding integration of technology into the human experience, the growing digital divide cannot be ignored. Those with digital access to technology and information are gaining power in communication, education and tech skills—which are all crucial to success in today’s economy. Closing the digital divide is complicated, however, as it is interwoven with economic, racial, educational and locational issues. These may be combated with awareness and strategic planning that empowers technological literacy in underserved communities.

Economic Equality and Growth

For many households and individuals, the costs of purchasing digital tools and access may be prohibitive. One solution is government and private sectors supporting subsidized internet access for low-income households and equal network service to rural and underserved communities. Those with engineering management technology and electrical engineering degrees have the opportunity to discover new and innovative ways to increase access to technology by redesigning infrastructure in a way that supports those underserved communities. Equal access to technology could be a determining factor in technological literacy across the U.S.

Social Mobility

The creation of community access centers that offer public technology and the internet could be an important resource for creating equal technological opportunity. The availability of technology to all has the opportunity to change the preconceived perception that technology and the internet are a luxury rather than a staple in continued education and economic opportunity.

Technological Literacy

Technological literacy is vital to economic and social equality, as well as to the future of students who will be entering the workforce. The heavy lifting should be done by the government and organizations that have the resources to instigate and provide change. However, the responsibility will also fall upon those with engineering and computer science degrees who can come up with ways to expand and promote tech literacy. Those with access and education hold the key to bridging the digital divide by sharing their knowledge and inspiring involvement.