Over the last three weeks I’ve been involved in a series of events that address the changing digital media landscape. Flashback twelve years ago. In 1998 the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) released the third installment of its Falling Through the Net report. The graph below gives you a sense of the state of household internet access by race in 1998.
Whereas 30% of white households were accessing the internet only about 13% of Latino and 11% of black households had home internet access. That gap established the framework for what we know as the digital divide, the rise of the “technology rich” and the “technology poor.” Consequently, as we entered the new millennium the debate about technology and social inequality was focused squarely on the “access gap.”
Fast forward to today and profound shifts in the social and digital media landscape are apparent. Black and Latino kids are going online from a vast array of places–school, libraries, community tech centers, and home. Data from a variety of sources confirms that we have shifted from the “access gap” to what Henry Jenkins and others describe as the “participation gap.” What is the participation gap? Well, it’s a reference to the fact that as a more diverse population joins the digital world how do we begin to understand the different skills, interests, ethics, and cultures that produce different new media ecologies, literacies, and modes of participation in digital media culture?
Even though the access gap has closed in some corners of the digital world (though certainly not all; a huge age gap still persists) race, class, education, geography, and economics continue to matter in the digital world. In my presentations I have focused specifically on how African American and Latino youth, through sheer determination and innovation, are remaking the participation gap. Twelve years ago young blacks and Latinos hardly figured in the conversations about young technology users. The data today strongly suggests that they may in fact be leading the digital transition.
Here are a few of the points that I’ve been addressing in my public talks.
1. In 1999, when the Kaiser Family Foundation released its first national study investigating the media behaviors of 8-18-year-olds they found that black and Latinos were significantly less likely to go online from home than their white counterparts. Moreover, young whites spent more time online than black or Latino youth.
2. Ten years later the media environments of white, black, and Latino youth has changed significantly. In their 2010 report Kaiser finds that the amount of time young people spend using media throughout the day has risen sharply, especially among blacks and Latinos. When you combine all media used, multitasking and otherwise, Hispanic youth spend about 13.0 hours a day with media. Black youth spend just about as much, 12:59 hours whereas white youth spend 8.36 hours. Even more interesting: on a typical day young Latinos (1:49 hours) and blacks (1:24) are spending more time online than their white counterparts (1:17).
3. When it comes to mobile media the gap is even wider. According to Kaiser, black and Latino youth are the heaviest consumers of media content via the cell phone. Black youth spend the most time using their phones for music, games, and videos: almost an hour and a half (1:28), compared to 1:04 for Hispanics and 26 minutes among white youth.
4. Since 2004-05 we have learned from Amanda Lenhart, an analyst from the Pew Internet & American Life Project, that black and Latino youth are just as likely as young whites to create a social network profile. There is growing evidence that young blacks and Latinos are spending more time on social sites like MySpace and even Facebook and Twitter than young whites.
5. In our recent work with a group of black and Latino teens they talk passionately about the role of mobile phones in their lives. The mobile, quite simply, is the hub of their social and informational world. That’s true of a growing number of all young people. But African Americans, according to the Pew Internet & American Life Project, are more likely than their white or Latino counterparts to go online via a mobile phone than a desktop or laptop computer. They are emerging as early adopters of the mobile web.
When I spoke with Amanda at the MacArthur Foundation’s Digital Media and Learning conference this past weekend she said that Pew would soon be releasing results that further support my observations. We all know that mobile is the future. By 2020, according to one Future of the Net report, the majority of Americans will be accessing the internet via a mobile device. But the future is now for some internet users, especially for young African Americans.
Finally, in our research with black teenagers they offer a host of reasons for why they prefer going online from their mobile phones. Some believe it’s a more affordable on ramp to the online world. Some believe it is more reliable, that is, no need to worry about the old or broken down computers they encounter at school or at home. The main reason: their mobile device offers a more empowered online experience. Many schools have all but made going online a painful experience. Students can’t do the things they want to do–communicate with their peers, access Facebook, or “mess around” with technology. Libraries place time and content restrictions on what young people can do online. The mobile web, in short, limits the ability of adults to control what kids do online. This can be liberating and, at times, limiting.
Truth is, we do not know a lot about what young people are doing online with their mobile phones. What are the perils when young people’s participation in new media communities drifts further away from adults? Are teens sexting? What kinds of new literacies are they engaged in? Is the mobile web used principally to play games, listen to music, and watch videos? Or is it also used as an educational and informational resource? These are just some of the kinds of questions that need to be answered.
We will continue to update you from the field as we strive to learn more about how black and Latino youth are remaking the participation gap and, along the way, changing the conversations about technology and social inequality.