A Glance at the Digital Divide

This past week, I was reminded of the digital divide. The divide is a widening gap between different demographics of people who either have access, limited access or no access to communications technologies like computers, tablets and phones. I live in a community where all of my friends own a smartphone, a laptop, a desktop and even a tablet. But many people in the U.S. and around the world don’t even have access to those technologies. Here’s a look at some interesting numbers:

The Pew Research Center found that 64% of U.S. adults — nearly two-thirds of the U.S. population — own a smartphone. However, 10% of Americans who own a smartphone don’t even have Internet or a broadband connection.

Think about that for a second. 10% of Americans own a smartphone but don’t have basic Internet. 13% who have a household income of less than $30,000 claim to be “heavily dependent” on their smartphones while only 1% of those with a household income of $75,000+ feel the same.

This shows a tremendous shift in our cultural values. It used to be the case that we all wanted to have a computer and an Internet connection, but now having a smartphone is seemingly more important; even crucial. In fact, CNBC touched on this topic saying that smartphones are “lifelines” for today’s “poor Americans.”

The digital divide is apparent here in that only certain demographics of people, only certain communities view smartphones (a comm tech) as a “lifeline.” While those with higher income barely think the same. In fact, one could argue that high-income communities of people view certain technologies as mere accessories.

The Pew Research Center also found that “those with relatively low income and educational attainment levels, younger adults, and non-whites are especially likely to be ‘smartphone-dependent.'” I’m only focusing on smartphones as one form of comm tech because most readers can understand how smartphones are an integral part of our daily lives. However, it’s important to note that there are many other forms of communications technologies; smartphones are not the only form.

Many might be wondering what exactly causes this digital divide. What factors contribute to this widening gap between populations, regions and communities?

  • Age and Race
  • Income
  • Education
  • Community/Region
  • Health

For example, if you are born into a wealthy family and grow up in a homogenous community where families are just like yours and there is little diversity, chances are you’ll grow up being exposed to all different kinds of communications technologies; you’ll have the opportunity to learn how to use it at a young age and, if you’re in the U.S., you’ll be part of the 64% of Americans who own a smartphone.

Why? Because you have the financial support and access to resources and information necessary to have a smartphone and know how to use it, too.

But what we tend to forget is this: There are 7 billion (and counting) people in the world and, as of last year, only 2.1 billion have access to a smartphone. That means nearly 5 billion people are left in the dark. It’s been predicted that an estimated 6+ billion people will eventually have a smartphone by 2020 but until then it’s important to address how we can help accelerate access to comm tech.

In class, we discussed ways to narrow this digital divide. Here are some key topics of discussion:

  • Improve accessibility by addressing knowledge gaps and poor infrastructure in public education systems.
  • Implement community programs to bring affordable Internet to high-needs areas to help fill the void of lack of information in high-needs areas and improve digital literacy.
  • Provide free resources to impoverished communities that can’t afford it so they can be exposed to comm tech and learn how to use it. Introduce basic skills and tech to those who are less educated on comm tech information.

Before I go, I want to note that the digital divide is due in large part to the economic divide between populations and communities. It’s important to understand the economic divide in trying to fully understand the digital divide.

So, how do you think we should narrow the digital divide gap?

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