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Digital Divide in the United States

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File:Connectivity over time.png

The Digital Divide in the United States refers to inequalities between individuals, households, and other groups of different demographic and socioeconomic levels in access to information and communication technologies (ICTs) and inequalities in the knowledge and skills needed to effectively use the information gained from connecting.[1][2][3] The Digital Divide in the United States should not be confused with the Global digital divide which also refers to inequalities in access, knowledge, and skills, but designates countries as the units of analysis and examines the divide between developing and developed countries on an international scale.[4]


The National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) conducted the first survey to assess Internet usage among what the study deemed the 'haves' and the 'have-nots' of American society in 1995.[2] After President Clinton adopted the phrase, "the digital divide" in his 2000 State of the Union address, researchers have identified numerous origins and aversions explaining trends in access and usage of information and communication technologies between the groups of United States' haves and have-nots.[5] Over the past decade, several of these demographic access and usage gaps have narrowed, or closed altogether, while others continue to show a lack of connectivity for the group; these include gaps on the basis of race and ethnicity and income.[6][7] The digital divide has been identified by policymakers as a concern in need of a remedy, since ICTs have the potential to improve individual Americans' lives.[7] Although frequency of Internet use among all Americans has risen (26% in 2002 used the Internet for more than an hour per day compared to 48% in 2009), still almost one third of Americans are not connected to the Internet.[6][8] In addition to a divide in access to connectivity, researchers have identified a skill, or knowledge, divide that demonstrates a gap between groups in the United States on the basis of technological competency and digital literacy.[9]

The effort by the United States' government to close the digital divide has included private and public sector participation, and has developed policies to address information infrastructure and digital literacy that promotes a digital society in the United States.[10]

Theoretical ExplanationsEdit


By 2001, women had surpassed men as the majority of the online United States population. 2009 Census data suggests that potential disparities in gendered connectivity have become nearly nonexistent; 73% of female citizens three years and older compared to 74% of males could access the Internet from their home.[11][12]


Older generations of Americans have consistently reported the lowest level of access to the Internet per age cohorts.[13] Americans 55 and older have always shown the lowest level of broadband usage, while Americans ages 18–24 have exhibited the highest levels of usage: in 2001, 3.1% of households 65 years and older, 10.1% of households 45–64 years of age, and 11.3% of households 16–44 years of age connected to the Internet at home.[14] The same trend holds true on the individual level: in 2005, 26% of Americans ages 65+, 67% of ages 50–64, 80% of ages 30–49, and 84% of ages 18–29 reported Internet access.[15] As a whole, usage rates are increasing, but older Americans still have the lowest levels of Internet connectivity: by 2009, 39.9% of households 65 years and older, 68.2% of households 45-64, and 71.2% of households 16-44 reported connecting to the Internet.[14] Per the oldest generations of Americans, 4% of the GI Generation (85+), 7% of the Silent Generation (66-84), and 35% of the Baby Boomers (47-65) had connected to the Internet by February 2008.[16][17]

Race and EthnicityEdit

File:Connected by race.png

Generally, racial minorities have demonstrated lower levels of access and knowledge ICTs and of owning infrastructure to utilize the connection.[18] The gap between races has been evident for over a decade: in 2000, 50% of Whites had access to the Internet compared to 43% of Hispanics and 34% of African Americans.[19] As of 2009, 77.3% of Asian Americans, 68% of Whites, 49.4% of Blacks, and 47.9% of Hispanics used broadband at home.[14] Even though the racial gap in Internet connectivity and usage is still evident, it is narrowing, as racial minorities experience a higher growth rate than majorities.[20]

Much of the growth in the Latino adult Internet population can be accounted for by examining the differential usages of U.S.-born Latinos versus foreign-born Latinos and the primary language used. 81% of U.S. born Latinos versus 54% of U.S. foreign-born Latinos used the Internet in 2010.[21] Of all adults, English-speaking Hispanics are the fastest rising ethnic cohort in terms of Internet usage.[22] In 2010, 81% of English-dominant Latinos, 74% bilingual Latinos, and 47% Spanish-dominant Latinos use the Internet. Even though the rate of dominant Spanish-speaking Latinos is low, comparatively, it has risen significantly since 36% in 2009.[21]

African Americans are behind Whites in Internet access, but the gap is most evident within the senior population: in 2003, 11% of African Americans age 65 and older reported using the Internet, compared to 22% of senior Whites. Also in 2003, 68% of 18-24 year old African Americans and 83% of 18-24 year old Whites had Internet access. A similar gap is noted in the 55-64 year old range with 58% of Whites and 22% of African Americans accessing the Internet.[23]

Finally, between 2000 and 2010, the racial population of Internet users has become increasingly similar to the racial makeup of the United States population, demonstrating a closing racial divide.[24]


Household income and Internet use are strongly related.[21] In 2010, 57% of individuals earning less than $30,000, 80% of individuals earning $30,000 - $49,999, 86% of individuals earning $50,000 - $74,999, and 95% of individuals earning $75,000 and more used the Internet.[25]

Some studies suggest an interaction effect between race and income in predicting Internet connectivity.[21][26] In 2010, 57% of Latinos living in <$30,000 household incomes used the Internet. 79% of all Latinos in households who earn between $30,000 and $49,999 per year were connected to the Internet in 2010. 91% of Latino households earning $50,000 or more per year were connected to the Internet in 2010. 59% of Whites who earned less than $30,000 per year used the Internet, followed by 82% of Whites who earned $30,000 - $49,999, and 92% of Whites who earned $50,000 or more. For African Americans, 54% who earned less than $30,000 connected to the Internet, 88% who earned $30,000 to $49,999, and 89% who earned $50,000 or more.[21]

Educational AttainmentEdit

In 2008, 44% of Internet users had a high school degree while 91% had a college degree.[27] In 2004, higher numbers of educated seniors had connected to the Internet: 62% of all connected seniors had at least some college education.[23]

There are also different levels of connectivity between Whites and Hispanics that are attributable to education as well as income, since Hispanics tend to have less education and lower income than Whites. 46% of Whites online in 2010 reported no high school diploma, compared to 43 % of Blacks and 42% of Hispanics who had no diploma. 68% of Hispanics who graduated from high school are online, compared to 64% of Whites and 58% of Blacks. Finally, 91% of Hispanics who received some college education or more are online, with 90% of Whites and 84% of Blacks achieving some college education or more are also connected.[21]

Means of ConnectivityEdit


The infrastructure by which individuals, households, businesses, and communities connect to the Internet refers to the physical mediums that people use to connect to the Internet such as desktop computers, laptops, cell phones, iPods or other MP3 players, Xboxes or Play Stations, electronic book readers, and tablets such as iPads.[28] Other than desktops, most types of Internet capable infrastructure connect through wireless means. In 2009, 56% of Americans said that they had connected to the Internet through wireless means.[22]

Within the G.I. generation (75 years and older), 28% own desktop and 10% own laptops. Of the Silent Generation (66–74 years), 48% own desktops and 30% own laptops. 64% of the Older Baby Boomers (57–65 years) own desktops and 43% own laptops. 65% of the Younger Boomers (47–56 years) own desktops and 49% own laptops. 69% of Generation X (35–46 years) owns desktops and 61% owns laptops. Generation Y (or the Millenials) are the only generation whose laptop use exceeds desktop use of 70% to 57%, relatively. Of adults over 65, only 45% have a computer (40% of adults 65 and older use the Internet).[28]

85% of all adults 18 and over own a cell phone, such as a Blackberry or iPhone, or other device that serves as a cell phone. Broken up into age cohorts, 48% of ages 75 and older, 68% of 66-74 year olds, 84% of 57-65 year olds, 86% of 47-56 year olds, 92% of 35-46 year olds, and 95% of 18-34 year olds own a cell phone, such as a Blackberry of iPhone, or other device that serves as a cell phone.[28]

Of each individual within the age cohort who owns a cell phone, such as a Blackberry or iPhone, or other device that serves as a cell phone, 2% of adults 75 and older, 17% of adults ages 66–74, 15% of ages 57–65, 25% of 47-56 year olds, 42% of 35-46 year olds, and 63% of 18-34 year olds use their phone to access the Internet.[28]

Racial minorities use cell phones more often than any other device to connect to the Internet. In 2010, 76% of Hispanic, 79% of Black, and 85% of White adults were using cell phones. 34% of White cell phone owners, 40% of Hispanic cell phone owners, and 51% of Black cell phone owners use their phones to access the Internet.[21]

47% of all adults own an iPod or MP3 player. 3% of 75+, 16% of ages 66–74, 26% of ages 57–65, 42% of ages 47–56, 56% of ages 35–46, and 74% of ages 18–34 own an iPod or MP3 player.[28] Similarly, 42% of adults own a game console such as an Xbox or Play Station. 3% of adults 75 and older, 8% of the adults ages 66–74, 19% of adults ages 57–65, 38% of adults ages 47–56, 63% of adults ages 35–46 and 18-34 own a game console.

Adult age cohorts owning e-Book readers and iPads or tablets are similar percentages as well. 5% of all adults own an e-Book reader compared to 4% owning an iPad or tablet. 2% of adults ages 75 + own an e-Book compared to 1% owning a tablet, 6% of 66-74 year olds own an e-Book compared to 1% owning a tablet, 3% of adults ages 57–65 own an e-book reader and an iPad or tablet, 7% of adults ages 47–56 own an e-Book reader compared to 4% owning an iPad or tablet, and 5% of adults ages 18–46 own an e-Book reader and an iPad or tablet.[28]

Age is negatively related to incidence of owning a device: 1% of 18-34 year olds, 3% of 35-46 year olds, 8% of 47-56 year olds, 20% of 66-74 year olds, and 43% of 75 year olds and older own none of the previously listed devices.[28]


Internet connectivity can be accessed at a variety of locations such as homes, offices, schools, libraries, public spaces, Internet cafes, etc.[21]

Of the 88% of individuals who connected on their laptop or netbook to a wireless connection, 86% used the device at home, 37% at work, and 54% somewhere else other than home or work.[29]

A digital divide was noted between urban and rural areas by the NTIA in 1999, but more recently that gap has closed.[30] Currently, Environmental racism may account for some of the disparities in Internet access between residentially segregated areas according to race. The difference in Internet access and skill level can be explained by racial segregation and concentrated poverty, resulting in restricted options and availability of networks to connect to the Internet and use of ICTs.[18]

Purpose of ConnectivityEdit

The most common reasons for connecting to the Internet include email at 48%, using search engines at 31%, reading news at 27%, surfing for fun at 23%, using the Internet as a hobby at 21%, information searches at 21%, researching products before purchase at 15%, finding financial information at 12%, and listening to audio and watching video clips at 11%.[29]

41% of Blacks and 47% of English-speaking Hispanics send and receive email on cell phones, as compared to 30% of Whites. Significant differences between the racial groups include sending and receiving instant messages, using social networking sites, watching videos, and positing photos or videos online.[31]

Lack of ConnectivityEdit

Physical, financial, psychological, and skill-based barriers exist in terms of Internet access and Internet skills for different demographics:

25% of American adults live with a disability that interferes with daily living activities. 54% of adults living with a disability still connect to the Internet. 2% of adults say they have a disability or illness that makes it more difficult or impossible for them to effectively and efficiently use the Internet.[32]

Aversion to the Internet influences an individual's psychological barriers to Internet usage, affecting which involving which individuals connect and for what purpose. Comfort displayed toward technology can be described as comfort performing a task concerning the medium and infrastructure by which to connect. Technological infrastructure sometimes causes privacy and security concerns leading to a lack of connectivity.[33]

Individuals that exhibit computer anxiety demonstrate fear towards the initial experience of computer usage or the process of using a computer. From this, many researchers conclude that increased computer experience could lead to lower anxiety levels. Others suggest that individuals demonstrate anxiety towards specific computer tasks, such as using the Internet, rather than anxiety towards computers in general.[34]

Communication apprehension influences propensity to use only Internet applications that promote engagement in communication with other people such as Skype or iChat.[35]

Overcoming the digital divide in the United StatesEdit

Information InfrastructureEdit

In 1993, the U.S. Advisory Council on the National Information Infrastructure was established and administered a report called A Nation of Opportunity that planned access to ICTs for all member of the population and emphasized the government's role in protecting their existence.[36]

Founded in 1996, the Boston Digital Bridge Foundation [37] attempts to enhance children's and their parents' computer knowledge, program application usage, and ability to easily navigate the Internet. In 2010, the City of Boston received a 4.3 million dollar grant from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration. The grant will attempt to provide Internet access and training to underserved populations including parents, children, youth, and the elderly.[38]

Starting in 1997, Cisco Systems Inc. began Cisco Networking Academy which donated equipment and provided training programs to high schools and community centers that fell in U.S. Empowerment Zones.[10]

Since 1999, a non-profit organization called Computers for Youth has provided cheaper Internet access, computers, and training to minority homes and schools in New York City. Currently, the agency serves more than 1,200 families and teachers per year.[39]

The National Science Foundation gave EDUCAUSE (a non-profit that attempts to enhance education with ICTs) $6 million to focus on providing ICTs to Hispanic-Serving Institutions, Historically Black Colleges and Universities, and Tribal Colleges and Universities.[40]

In 2000, President Clinton allocated $2.25 billion to provide low-income families at-home access to computers and the Internet, to install broadband networks in underserved communities, and to encourage private donation of computers, businesses or individuals to sponsor community technology centers, and technology training. An additional $45 million was added to emphasize provision of ICTs to underserved areas.[41]

In 2003, the Gates Foundation contributed $250 million to install more than 47,000 computers and train librarians in almost 11,000 libraries in all 50 states.[42]

In 2004 in Houston, Texas, a non-profit organization called Technology for All (TFA) established a free broadband Wi-Fi network in an underserved community, Pecan Park. An additional grant in 2010 assisted TFA, in collaboration with Rice University, in upgrading their Wi-Fi network to a new long-range version, a "Super Wi-Fi" in order to enhance network speed and computer quality.[43]

In 2007, projects called One Laptop per Child, Raspberry Pi and 50x15 were implemented in attempting to reduce the digital divide by providing cheaper infrastructure necessary to connect.[44]

In 2007, the use of “hotspot”[45] zones (people can access free Wi-Fi) was introduced to help bridge access to the Internet. Due to a majority percentage of American adults (55) connecting wirelessly, this policy can assist in providing more comprehensive network coverage, but also ignores an underprivileged population of people who do not own infrastructure, so still lack access to the Internet and ICTs.[45]

Since 2008, organizations such as Geekcorps [46] and Inveneo [47] have been working to reduce the digital divide by emphasizing ICTs within a classroom context. Technology used often includes laptops, handhelds (e.g. Simputer, E-slate), and tablet PCs.[48]

In 2011, Congresswoman Doris Matsui introduced the Broadband Affordability Act, which calls for the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to subsidize broadband Internet service for low-income citizens, assisting in closing the gap between high-income and low-income households. The Act would expand the program to offer discounted internet service to lower-income consumers living in both urban and rural areas.[49]

Digital LiteracyEdit

The Tomorrow's Teachers to Use Technology established by the Department of Education was given almost $400 million between 1999 and 2003 to train teachers in elementary and secondary schools to use ICTs in the classroom.[10]

Digital SocietyEdit

In 2000, Berkeley, California established a program that facilitated digital democracy in allowing residents to contribute opinions to general city plans via the Internet.[9]

E-Government and e-commerce have both been promoted since the Clinton Administration.[10]


Social CapitalEdit

The majority of research on civic engagement and social capital shows that the Internet enhances social capital in the United States, but others report that after controlling for background variables, civic engagement between users and non-users is not significantly different.[50]

Of those who do believe that the Internet promotes social capital, a longitudinal study in Pittsburgh found that Internet usage increased rates of individual participation in community activities as well as levels of trust. Additionally, these increased levels of involvement were greater for participants who had previously been the least involved.[51] Of those who use the Internet in the United States, studies have found that these individuals tend to be members of community social networks, participate in community activities, and exhibit higher levels of political participation.[52]

Economic GainsEdit

The United States is the world leader in Internet supply ecosystem, holding over 30% of global Internet revenues and more than 40% of global Internet net income. Its lead primarily stems from the economic importance of and dependence the United States places on the Internet, since the Internet makes the United States' economic activity faster, cheaper, and more efficient.[53] The Internet provides a large contribution to wealth: 61% of businesses who use the Internet in the United States saved $155.2 billion as a result of ICTs as more efficient means toward productivity.[54] In 2009, the Internet generated $64 billion in consumer surplus in the United States.[53] In the United States, the Internet promotes private consumption primarily through online shopping. In 2009, online purchases of goods and services totaled about $250 billion, with average consumption per buyer equaling about $1,773 over the year.[53] That same year, the Internet contributed to 60% of the United States' private consumption, 24% of private investment, 20% of public expenditure, and 3.8% of the GDP.[53]

Between 1995 and 2009, the Internet has contributed to 8% of the GDP's growth in the United States. Most recently, the Internet has contributed to 15% of the GDP's growth from 2004-2009.[53] The American government can also communicate more quickly and easily with citizens who are Internet consumers: e-government supports interactions with American individuals and businesses.[55]

Additionally, widespread use of the Internet by businesses and corporations drives down energy costs. Besides the fact that Internet usage does not consume large amounts of energy, businesses who utilize connections no longer have to ship, stock, heat, cool, and light unsellable items whose lack of consumption not only yields less profit for the company but also wastes more energy. Online shopping contributes to less fuel use: a 10 pound package via airmail uses 40% less fuel than a trip to buy that same package at a local mall, or shipping via railroad. Researchers in 2000 predicted a continuing decline in energy due to Internet consumption to save 2.7 million tons of paper per year, yielding a decrease by 10 million tons of carbon dioxide globalwarming pollution per year.[56]

Within the Capabilities ApproachEdit

An individual must be able to connect in order to achieve enhancement of social and cultural capital and achieve mass economic gains in productivity. Even though individuals in the United States are legally capable of accessing the Internet, many are thwarted by barriers to entry such as a lack of means to infrastructure or the inability to comprehend the information that the Internet provides. Lack of infrastructure and lack of knowledge are two major obstacles that impede mass connectivity. These barriers limit individuals' capabilities in what they can do and what they can achieve in accessing technology. Some individuals have the ability to connect, but have nonfunctioning capabilities in that they do not have the knowledge to use what information ICTs and Internet technologies provide them.[57][58]


As is evident by policies enacted, agencies created, and policies administered listed in the section titled Overcoming the digital divide in the United States, the United States has been active in closing the access gap in the digital divide, but studies demonstrate that a digital divide is still present; that is, access is becoming universal, but the skills needed to effectively consume and efficiently use information gained from ICTs are not.[10]

Second Level Digital DivideEdit

The second level digital divide, also referred to as the production gap, describes the gap that separates the consumers of content on the internet from the producers of content.[59] As the technological digital divide is decreasing between those with access to the internet and those without, the meaning of the term digital divide is evolving. Previously, digital divide research has focused on accessibility to the Internet and Internet consumption. However, with an increasing number of the population with access to the Internet, researchers are examining how people use the internet to create content and what impact socioeconomics are having on user behavior.[60] New applications have made it possible for anyone with a computer and an Internet connection to be a creator of content, yet the majority of user-generated content widely available widely on the Internet, like public blogs, is created by a small portion of the Internet-using population. Web 2.0 technologies like Facebook, Youtube, Twitter, and blogs enable users to participate online and create content without having to understand how the technology actually works, leading to an ever increasing digital divide between those who have the skills and understanding to interact more fully with the technology and those who are passive consumers of it.[59] Many are only nominal content creators through the use of Web 2.0, like posting photos and status updates on Facebook, but not truly interacting with the technology. Some of the reasons for this production gap include material factors like what type of Internet connection one has and the frequency of access to the internet. The more frequently a person has access to the Internet and the faster the connection, the more opportunities they have to gain the technology skills and the more time they have to be creative.[61] Other reasons include cultural factors often associated with class and socioeconomic status. Users of lower socioeconomic status are less likely to participate in content creation due to disadvantages in education and lack of the necessary free time for the work involved in blog or web site creation and maintenance.[61]

Knowledge DivideEdit

Since gender, age, racial, income, and educational gaps in the digital divide have narrowed compared to past levels, some researchers suggest that the digital divide is shifting from a gap in access and connectivity to ICTs to a Knowledge divide. A knowledge divide concerning technology presents the possibility that the gap has moved beyond access and having the resources to connect to ICTs, to interpreting and understanding information presented once connected.[62]

See alsoEdit


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