The Digital Divide Just Isn’t What It Used To Be

A new report by the Kaiser Family Foundation adds to the vast literature about the “digital divide” in America. As with past studies of this sort, though, the gaps it documents seem less remarkable than the continuing proliferation of Internet access across population groups. Among children age 8-18, 82 percent of those with college-educated parents have Internet access at home. But so do 68 percent of the kids whose parents have a high school diploma or less—a proportion undreamed of even for elite demographic cohorts just a few years ago. Similarly, among kids in families with yearly income of more than $50,000, 84 percent have Internet access at home—and so do sizable majorities of children with family income of $35,000-50,000 (72 percent) or less than $35,000 (66 percent).

In a breakdown of the data by ethnicity, 80 percent of whites, 61 percent of blacks and 67 percent of Hispanics in the 8-18 age range have home access to the Internet. The gap is considerably smaller, though, when it comes to using the Internet on a typical day (see the chart below). And there’s almost no racial/ ethnic gap on the question of whether a kid has ever gone online: Nearly all the kids in each cohort have done so.

Given that usage of the Internet is now more the rule than the exception across the economic and ethnic spectrum, the concept of the digital divide is coming in for a redefinition. The Kaiser report does this by emphasizing a couple of matters: “quality of access to the Internet” (the italic emphasis is theirs) and use of the Internet by kids as young as six months old. Thus, the report cites federal data from 2001 showing that broadband access was much more common for kids in upper-income homes than for those in lower-income households—as, most likely, is still the case today. The report also cites current survey data showing wide gaps in Internet access for kids between the ages of 6 months and 6 years. For instance, among kids of this age in households with income of less than $20,000, 69 percent have never used a computer, vs. 63 percent in the $20,000-29,999 bracket, 49 percent of the $30,000-49,999s, 38 percent of the $50,000-74,999s and 39 percent of the $75,000-and-ups.