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Study: Digital Divide Not Race-Based and Bridged by Smartphones? Not So Fast

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First Posted: Jan 09, 2014 07:10 PM EST
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A recent study by the Pew Internet and American Life Project appears to support the controversial claim that the "digital divide" -- the disparity in internet technology and access that has traditionally been defined as between American Whites and minorities, is not actually an inequality based on race anymore, but instead an economic problem. However, that conclusion must take into account smartphone internet access as if it's equal to desktop-based broadband, which it is not.

The study, titled "African Americans and Technology Use," is one of many by the Pew Internet and American Life Project to track technology use trends in America, with a focus on how minorities continue to fare with respect to internet access.

According to the Daily Dot the latest study finds "in a sense, that ... the gap in internet access may be less racial than it is economic. The study's author, Aaron Smith, supports this take, telling the Daily Dot, "If you're upper-income, well-educated, or young, race doesn't matter that much," explaining that, "for a while, there was an independent race effect, but that went away about five or six years ago."

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Indeed, the study found no difference in internet usage between Blacks and Whites at the same income levels -- such as the under $30,000 demographic or the over $75,000 income bracket -- holding all other variables constant. In addition, Pew reports that young Blacks and Whites, aged 18-29, use the internet at nearly the same, incredibly high, rate of 98 and 99 percent, respectively.

The biggest difference in internet use, according to the study, comes when you break down the results by age and education, with Blacks 50 years or older, or with an educational level of high school or less reporting significantly less internet use.

(Pew Internet and American Life)
(Pew Internet and American Life Project)

However, the study's measure of "internet usage," as you can see by Pew's description of the breakdown, is based on the percentage of adults in each group who use the internet or email -- regardless of device or location. In this measurement, Blacks now only trail Whites by seven percent, total.

Taking the same measure of internet access -- either by home broadband or smartphone -- another Pew Internet and American Life Poll from mid-2013 would find that Latinos lag only five percentage points behind Whites. Barely a digital divide at all.

That doesn't tell the whole story, of course. Both in the previous Pew study and the most recent study on African Americans and internet access, smartphone-only access is a big part of the total percentage of minorities reaching the internet, while Blacks and Latinos lag behind Whites by significant percentages (12 percent and 22 percent, respectively) in home broadband, computer-based access.

While that gap tightens when you consider adults with higher levels of education and income, the gap is still very real, because smartphones can't do everything desktops with broadband can. Try doing something other than checking social media, reading news, and quick Wikipedia reference -- like applying for jobs, applying for college, accessing government services, or doing homework -- on a daily basis for a couple weeks, and you'll quickly realize that the digital divide isn't realistically closed by smartphones.

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