Increased Mobile Web Use And The Digital Divide

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The image of the affluent and white cellphone owner as the prototypical mobile Web user seems to be a misnomer, according to a report published Wednesday by the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Center.
The study found that African-Americans and Latinos continue to be more likely to own cellphones than whites and more likely to use their phones for a greater range of activities.

This increase in mobile Web use, first noticed in a similar study by the Pew Center last summer, is driven both by age and economics, according to Aaron W. Smith of the Pew Center. Younger people and people living in households making less than $30,000 a year are increasing their mobile Web use at particularly fast rates, he said, and the African American and Latino populations are younger and poorer relative to the white population.

Because mobile Web use has grown among groups like African Americans and Latinos that have traditionally lagged in Web access, it has been cited as evidence that the distinction between the digital haves and have-nots is eroding.

But the mobile Web means different things to different people. For more affluent populations, it generally means wireless access with a laptop computer. For poorer people it means a cellphone, which is not a perfect replacement for other forms of online access, said Mr. Smith and several others who study social issues related to technology.

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There is a difference between accessing the Internet on a smartphone and a regular “feature phone” cellphone. The Pew report did not reflect this distinction.

Americans in general are accessing the Internet through mobile devices in increasing numbers, according to the Pew report, with 59 percent of those surveyed saying they accessed the mobile Web, compared with 51 percent a year ago.

Notably, rates of laptop ownership among African Americans grew dramatically to 51 percent from 34 percent in 2009, according to the study, a survey of 2,252 adults aged 18 and older.

But 18 percent of African Americans use a cellphone as their only form of Internet access, compared to 10 percent of whites. People with low incomes and low levels of education were also much more likely to access the Internet through their cellphones alone.

Shireen Mitchell, the founder of Digital Sisters and a consultant on social media campaigns focused on women and minorities, said that the way in which people access the Internet should remain a part of the conversation about the digital divide.

“The quality of what is available through cell only is limited access,” she said. “We are moving in a positive direction about true cellphone usage and it’s relevant to online access but there are still some challenges ahead.”

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