Latinos' 'Essential' Uses for Smartphones and One Persistant Gap in the Digital Divide
A closer look at recent research on the uses of smartphones belies the argument that smartphones are closing the digital divide.
Recently, Pew Research released a massive study looking at smartphone adoption and the rates at which people use the mobile Internet. As per usual, there was a lot of information to unpack in the study, especially when it comes to how Latinos use their smartphones.
Smartphone Dependence: The Real "First World Problem"
We previously analyzed on one aspect of Pew's study called "smartphone dependence," -- a phrase whose flippant connotation from pop culture of millennials unable to put their iPhones down for dinner is quite unfortunate and misleading in this case.
Smartphone dependence, for many underprivileged Latinos and Blacks, describes the condition where their mobile devices are the one and only onramp onto the Internet -- with all of the personal, economic, social, and career advantages modern connectivity brings.
For example, some 13 percent of Latinos and 12 percent of Blacks can be described as "smartphone-dependent," meaning there's no broadband connection at home and not many options to go online besides using their smartphones. Only 4 percent of White smartphone owners can be described in the same way.
This week, Pew itself took another look at the smartphone report's numbers, examining new disparities and distinction situations for Latinos and African Americans that are arising even while other hallmarks of the "digital divide" begin to fade.
Latinos and Smartphones: Behind the Numbers
Rates of smartphone ownership, mobile broadband adoption, and other often-studied metrics of the gap between the ultra-connected (and those who aren't) are starting to even out. In fact, as we've previously reported, many "ahead of the digital curve" Hispanic consumers in the U.S. tend to out-pace the average consumer in several of those metrics.
But the biggest differences that point to a persistent connectivity gap for minorities, regardless of smartphone adoption, arise when you look at how smartphones are being used, Pew found.
Black and Hispanic smartphone owners, for example, are much more likely to use their devices for career-related activities, with more than 55 percent of both Blacks and Latinos taking to their smartphones to search for employment, compared to about a third (37 percent) of Whites. The same goes for submitting an application for a job, where Pew found that minorities are twice as likely to use smartphones for the task as Whites.
The same type of trend can be seen when it comes to other uses of the Internet that tie into the essentials of modern life, like accessing government services or finding information about a health condition. In the case of finding health-related information, for example, nearly three quarters (73 percent) of Latinos use smartphones for the task, outpacing both Blacks (67 percent) and Whites (58 percent).
Latinos are also much more likely to seek educational content using smartphones, with 45 percent of Hispanics responding that they took an online class or looked for educational content in the past year, compared to 32 percent of Blacks and only 26 percent of Whites.
The Catch 22 of Smartphone-only Access
The rates of Latinos accessing education through smartphone and using it for career opportunities tie into a larger Catch 22 for low-income, but online, Latinos:
Smartphone connectivity opens up opportunities for those who wouldn't be online otherwise. Yet they're inherently more limited tools to actually take advantage of those same opportunities, compared to a broadband-connected computer.
Smartphones give basic connectivity and a way to access greater educational and career resources -- both essential avenues for economic mobility that are increasingly only found through the Internet. But have you ever tried to fill out five job applications in an afternoon or write a three-page essay for school only using a smartphone?
Perhaps a Bluetooth full-qwerty keyboard or better apps make the task easier -- but what if you reach your 1GB data cap before finishing researching for that essay?
The point is, it doesn't matter how digitally savvy or smartphone-native a person is or how well-designed applications are for the device -- a broadband-connected computer is simply an advantage over a 5-inch touchscreen.
Pew's analysis of smartphone ownership among minorities -- particularly the more essential nature of Latino's and Black's use of that technology that out-pace those in a better economic standing -- adds more weight to a case for determining Internet policy that we previously argued last year, when even Pew had opposite conclusions:
When measuring the digital divide, smartphones should count as only step one in the process of closing connectivity gaps in the country. Step two -- when the digital divide is actually bridged -- means getting affordable, home-based, computer-connected "fixed" access to true broadband.
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