A new study from Sesame Workshop’s Joan Ganz Cooney Center reveals that under-connected internet access among low-income American families is having a far-reaching impact when it comes to education and economic opportunities.
In understanding what lower-income families’ access to digital technologies looks like today, Opportunity for All? Technology and Learning in Low-Income Families, conducted in association with Rutgers University, surveyed roughly 1,200 US parents of kids ages six to 13 with household incomes below the national median.
With main drivers being academic development and staying in touch with relatives, 91% of respondents say they own a mobile device (smartphone or tablet), 81% own a computer (laptop or desktop), and 94% have either home or mobile access to the internet. Even in families living below the poverty level (US$24,250 for a family of four in 2015), access to devices and the internet is widespread. Yet connectivity and good connectivity are very different things. The study shows that not all devices provide the same kinds of online experiences, and many families face limitations in the form of service cutoffs, slow service, older technology, or difficulty using equipment because too many people are sharing devices
For example, many rely on mobile-only access (23%) and more than half (52%) of those with home internet access say it is too slow.
The implications for mobile-online internet access are substantial, as families that only head online via their phones are less likely to shop online (36% vs. 66% of those with home access), use online banking or bill-paying (49% vs. 74%), or apply for jobs or services online (42% vs. 56%). Their children are less likely to use the internet on a daily basis (31% vs. 51%), or to go online to explore topics in which they are interested (35% vs. 52%). Children from low- and moderate-income families use computers and the internet for a variety of educational activities, but those without home access are less likely to go online to pursue their interests. Among tweens who use computers or the internet, 81% often or sometimes use computers or the internet to do homework, and 44% use computers or the internet to write stories or blogs, connect with teachers (40%) and talk with other students about school projects.
Among all six- to 13-year-olds who use computers or the internet, 81% use them to play educational games and to look up interesting things, while seven in ten are doing something creative, such as making their own art or music. However, children without home internet access are less likely to go online to look up information about things in which they are interested: 35% of those with mobile-only access say they “often” do this, compared to 52% of those with home access.
Moreover, 26% of respondents say too many people share the same computer, and 20% admit that their internet access was cut off in the last year due to defaulting on payment.
For families who live below the poverty line, 51% have either no web access, or resort to mobile-only connection and dial-up service. The study also highlights a strong correlation between lower income and the reliance on kids to help parents with technology.
In terms of ethnic implications, families headed by Hispanic immigrants are less connected than other low- and moderate-income families. One in 10 immigrant Hispanic families have no internet access at all, compared with 7% of US-born Hispanics.
While Opportunity for All? shows that technology infiltrates the lives of almost all Americans, it furthers the fact that the socio-economic digital divide within the US shows no signs of waning. In November, a Common Sense Media study found that 13% of lower-income eight-to 18-year-olds (whose families make less than US$35,000 a year) have an eReader in the home, compared with 41% of higher-income youth (US$100,000+ a year). Moreover, 54% of lower-income teens have a laptop in the home, compared with 92% of higher-income teens. And when it came to internet access, the Common Sense Media study found that 10% of lower-income teens had only dial-up internet at home, compared with none among higher-income teens.