We live in a world that is more connected than ever thanks to technology. Studies estimate that 95% of Americans have a cellphone. 67% of people making less than $30,000 still have a smart phone. More and more people are becoming technology dependent, all of this according to the Pew Research Center. That hasn’t stopped the digital divide from persisting not only between countries but within such a developed country as the United States. Let’s talk about what the digital divide is, how it persists, and what we can do in our daily lives to fight it.

First, let’s define the digital divide. It’s pretty self-explanatory if you take a second to think about it, but it goes beyond who has a cell phone and computer and who doesn’t and explores concerns about broadband internet access, the cost of Wi-FI, and more. Researchers at Stanford working on the issue say that the digital divide “refers to the growing gap between the underprivileged members of society, especially the poor, rural, elderly, and handicapped portion of the population who do not have access to computers or the internet; and the wealthy, middle-class, and young Americans living in urban and suburban areas who have access.”

The digital divide sounds like something that should exist between first and third world countries, and it does, but it also exists between urban and rural areas, between the rich and the poor, and between whites and minorities.  The digital divide manifests in many ways, but you might be wondering, why does it matter if not everyone has equal access to Internet? Is life really so hard without it?

Well, yes, to be frank, it is. Social media and Netflix steaming aside, the digital divide actively hurts those on the lower end of the divide in their educational and employment pursuits. Most job applications are online. What if you can’t access a computer, or are older and haven’t learned the computer skills necessary to navigate that form? Homework is becoming increasingly digital. What if you’re a high schooler who doesn’t have a word processor at home, let alone a way to watch Ted Talk videos for class or contribute to an online discussion board.

So how do we work towards decreasing the digital divide without just toppling the tech industry? Here’s how:

1) More digital literacy classes

A huge, often overlooked, aspect of the digital divide is the lack of technological education in many areas. Technology changes at a rapid rate. It’s amazing, but it can also be overwhelming. It’s easy when you’re young and well off and in college to adapt to new software and search engines and the latest iPhone, but for others, that isn’t the case. That’s where digital literacy classes come in, both in public schools, at libraries, and through employers. These classes are critical to keeping citizens actively engaged in our information society and keeping them from being left out of the digital conversations being had. Many of these courses are already offered through public libraries and they teach email skills, Microsoft Office Suite, how to download e-books, how to upload YouTube videos, and more. If you notice there aren’t those courses being offered in your community, do something about it. Work with your local library or university to set up classes like this and hone on your skills by helping other develop theirs.

2) More free computer and internet access

Yes, 95% of America has a cellphone, but 95% of America does not have consistent internet access, which doesn’t cure the digital divide. The Pew Research Center found that more than 15% of households containing school-aged children do not have reliable computer access. People with cellphones, but not internet access and people with no computer access at all rely on public computers and internet providers like public libraries, local universities, and even coffee shops to access the internet for a multitude of purposes. I get really perturbed when I hear people complaining about individuals sitting in coffee shops doing homework, or people experiencing homelessness using the Internet at a coffee shop or library, because that’s what those spaces are there for! They’re allowing people to be active participants in society. Therefore, to fight the digital divide in America, we should increase that access. More computer centers in public libraries, and an easier time for people experiencing tough times to use those computers. Extend school library hours if you see students using those computers to finish their homework. When somewhere offers free Wi-Fi, appreciate it and understand that others need it more than you might know. Educate yourself, be empathetic, and encourage increased access whenever you can.

3) Less reliance on computers for homework 

A Pew Research study found that 17% of teenagers cannot do their homework at times because of the digital divide. This specifically affects low-income students the most, though the divide also exists in rural areas. 25% of students whose family makes under $30,000 do not have reliable access to a computer at home. So when a teacher sends home an assignment to watch a Ted Talk or contribute to an online discussion board or even do internet-based research, these teens suffer. They may want to do this homework, but are unable to, which is demoralizing and often embarrassing. Teachers and other educators can help fight this by being aware of their students, by knowing that some students will not be able to use a computer as often as others and at least making concessions. Take the class to the library to use the computers. Only assign homework that can be done Internet-free, or allow students to check out books that will provide the same information. If a student comes to you and says they didn’t do their homework, instead of criticizing them, maybe ask them if they were able to, if they would like time in the library at those computers to complete it. This goes hand-in-hand with increasing computer and internet access in public spaces and requires not only awareness but compassion.

Aryssa D
FFL Cabinet Member