National Voices

Wednesday, Mar 13 2013 11:00 PM

ESTHER CEPEDA: Crossing the digital divide

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    Esther Cepeda

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For years, I've been saying the "digital divide" -- equal access to Internet-enabled technology -- was destined for the dustbin of history. Its extinction is finally starting to be recognized.

Last week, the Pew Hispanic Center released data noting that when it comes to using the Internet, the divide between Latinos and whites is smaller than what it had been just a few years ago.

According to Pew, between 2009 and 2012, the share of Latino adults who say they go online at least occasionally increased from 64 percent to 78 percent. By comparison, Internet usage among whites increased by half as much.

During that same time frame, the gap in cellphone ownership between Latinos and other groups either diminished or disappeared -- in 2012, 86 percent of Latinos said they owned a cellphone, up from 76 percent in 2009.

These statistics reflect a trend that has, for years, been accelerating among minorities and people with low incomes -- though, it should be noted, not among people who live in rural areas and are still mostly disconnected.

The next challenge is for everyone to achieve the savvy and understanding necessary to use online tools for empowerment and transformation.

For instance, we know that a slightly higher percentage of Latinos and blacks say they own a cellphone than whites, and that Latinos are just as likely as whites or blacks to own an Internet-enabled smartphone. But what do they do with them?

Is it a pocket fun machine that simply keeps social media close at hand? Or are there enough opportunities available for these previously disconnected users to learn how to fill out online job applications, use health management apps or access banking services with their phones?

I'm not completely sure. I can pull up a zillion studies showing how many Hispanics and blacks are on Facebook or Twitter or watching videos, but research on less "fun" usage habits is harder to find.

The Captura Group, a marketing firm, reported last year that only 32 percent of all Hispanics online use the Internet for their banking. In June 2011, only 10 percent of Latinos online were using LinkedIn, according to comScore. Curiously, informal research by a ClickZ marketing columnist estimated that less than 4 percent of them openly identified themselves on LinkedIn as Hispanic.

It's good progress that 72 percent of Latinos say they now own a desktop or laptop computer (compared with 70 percent of blacks and 83 percent of whites), but what does this mean for families? Is that desktop being used to write and print school papers, research colleges or create resumes -- or for some combination of light information and entertainment?

In 2009, researchers at the University of Chicago did field studies in Romania to see if students in low-income households would gain better academic outcomes if they were afforded a home computer. Reinforcing the results of other similar studies, they found little or no educational benefit.

In fact, the students in low-income households reacted quite badly to the new technological arrival. Their test scores often declined after the machine arrived because it was overwhelmingly used as an entertainment device, further separating them academically from their more privileged counterparts.

Last year, The New York Times published an eye-opening article titled "Wasting Time Is New Divide in Digital Era." It chronicled worries from entities such as the Federal Communications Commission and some of the same groups that struggled to get technology into the hands of the underprivileged that, as some studies had already found, minority kids spend considerably more time using their computers and gadgets to watch shows and videos, play games, and connect on social networking sites than do children from more well-off families.

We need to start thinking in terms of a much different digital divide.

Now that minority and low-income populations have more access to tech tools and decent Internet service -- even if only at community hubs such as the local school, library or McDonald's -- we need programs that will teach them how to use this access to better their lives. And we need more research to drive those initiatives.

There will be little momentum to push for meaningful digital literacy until we are acutely aware of how few minorities go online to get higher education, access financial services or enhance their careers. Until this happens, our society will continue to be a tale of two Internets.

Email Esther J. Cepeda of The Washington Post Writers Group at estherjcepeda@washpost.com.

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