This week the NPR program Tell Me More- with Michel Martin did a two-part segment titled, What Digital Divide? The stories were a response to the growing evidence that black and Latino youth are heavy users of the mobile web via mobile phones.
While this trend has been evolving for at least three to four years researchers are just beginning to contemplate the social and cultural implications. So, while it’s easy to conclude that “blacks and Latinos are heavy mobile users because they can’t afford desktop, laptops and other expensive devices” there is so much more to this story.
The first part in the series draws insights from Smokey Fontaine , Chief Content Officer at Interactive One and Mark Lopez, Chief Operating Officer of Terra Networks USA. These two companies have built their business model around supplying black and Latino mobile users with content. Fontaine explained that one of the reasons for the growth in mobile usage among African American and Latinos can be attributed to falling price points. “Cell phone fees,” he tells Michel, “have come down.” Adding, “that’s one of the things we’ve seen, especially cell phone fees regarding data usage.”
Lopez attributes the rise in mobile use among Latinos to realizing and enjoying the increased functionality of mobile. “We see the Latino audience really making a full utility of that mobile device, whether it’s to access the Internet, to talk or to share pictures and video,” Lopez says. For communities that may be far away from their home country or family, the mobile becomes a way of staying connected to people, places, and culture. Lopez adds, “Can that device get me closer to a family that’s far away in my home country? It definitely can. I can send video. I can send pictures through the device, some things that a few years ago, I couldn’t do with my mobile phone.”
Michel asked them if there were any downsides to the increasing mobile use? What impact, for example, is the proliferation of mobile having on youth literacy, educational achievement, etc.? (This is something that she and I talked about in more detail in the second part of the segment). Neither Fontaine nor Lopez addressed this question meaningfully. In truth, they approach mobile use from a different perspective, primarily a business one. And that makes sense if you understand that black and Latino youth are heavy users of mobile data. And it also makes sense when you consider that according to most demographic projections, America is steadily evolving into a racially and ethnically diverse nation.
Still, questions related to what mobile means and what kinds of social and behavioral shifts are in motion are important. On day two of the segment, Michel and I talked about the downsides to the rising use of mobile among young African Americans and Latinos. I suggested that for many black and Latino youth mobile provides a more autonomous internet experience. Compared to their white and Asian counterparts black and Latino youth are much more likely to be policed in the public spaces–schools and libraries—they use to access the internet. As a result, they turn to mobile as a way to gain more control over their engagement with the online world. (This is true of most young people around the world, but especially true of young people who find themselves on the social and economic margins). But this often pushes them further and further away from parents, guardians, and teachers. That is, adults who could help them navigate the digital world more effectively.
Many parents of black and Latino youth, as one young person indicates on Tell Me More, have no idea what their children are doing with their mobile phones. One of the things that we have learned is that while young people may be trendsetters when it comes to some digital media technologies when it comes to the social, ethical, and educational aspects of new media use adults are an indispensable resource. Our research has found that many poor and working class youth are growing up in homes, communities, and schools were there are few, if any, opportunities to talk about the challenges that come with being a citizen in the digital age. In many instances, these kids are left on their own to deal with issues like cyberbullying, sexting, and the privacy issues that are central parts of being young and digital today.
Some of my work is also trying to explore the creation of applications, platforms, and online experiences that empower young people to use their devices to enhance their heath, self-image, and social networks. In other words, to see their mobile not only as a source of entertainment but also as a tool for personal growth, life-style enrichment, and social engagement.
Follow The Young and the Digital on Twitter @scraigwatkins.