The Internet has become an integral part of America’s entertainment, communication, and information culture. Since the mid 1990s, the Internet has become prevalent in middle and upper-class American households. Companies and government agencies are increasingly offering products, services, and information online. Educational institutions are integrating technology into their curriculum and are offering courses from a distance. However, while some are advantaged by the efficiencies and convenience that result from these innovations, others may unwittingly become further marginalized by these same innovations since Internet access is not spreading to them as quickly. The ‘digital divide’ is the term used to describe this emerging disparity. Government analysts argue that historically underserved groups such as racial and ethnic minorities, rural and low-income communities, and older Americans are at a distinct disadvantage if this divide is not closed because American economic and social life is increasingly becoming networked through the Internet (National Telecommunications and Information Administration, 1995). Over the last decade access to the Internet has increased significantly. A 2006 Pew Internet and American Life survey shows that 73% of U.S. adults (about 147 million adults) are Internet users, up from 66% (about 133 million adults) in 2005. And the share of Americans who have broadband connections at home reached 42% (about 84 million), up from 29% (about 59 million) in 2005 (Madden, 2006). African- Americans are increasingly accessing the Internet via home broadband connections, with a 121% adoption rate in 2005 (Horrigan, 2006). But does this mean that the problem of the digital divide has been solved? Is further research in this area warranted or has the digital divide become passé? In this article, we take on these questions by first reviewing major issues and trends in digital divide research. We do so by reviewing the digital divide literature as it relates to one historically underserved group, namely African-Americans. Next, we present a conceptual framework that contrasts 1) social and technological access perspectives, and 2) assetbased/ resource and behavioral/use perspectives. The article concludes with our recommendations for future research opportunities for examining digital divide issues.
There have been numerous definitions for the digital divide, government and industry reports about the digital divide, and competing interpretations of the statistics contained in these reports. For instance, the digital divide has been defined at the What is Web site as “the fact that the world can be divided into people who do and people who don’t have access to—and the capability to use—modern information technology, such as the telephone, television, or the Internet.” Others (PRNewswire, 2000) offer another definition: “arguably the single, largest, and segregating force in today’s world. If it is not made a national priority, a generation of children and families will mature without these tools that are proving to be the key to the future.”
Most of our knowledge about the digital divide in the U.S. is based on survey research on computer and Internet access in the home, at work, and in public places. The most cited statistics are found in the digital divide series produced by the U.S. Department of Commerce (National Telecommunications and Information Association, 1998; 1999; 2000; 2002). Theses studies have found that the divide cuts along the lines of ethnicity and race, geographic location, household composition, age, education, and income level. However, these gaps are rapidly closing. In September 2001, 143 million Americans (54%) were using the Internet, and 174 million Americans (66%) used computers (U.S. Department of Commerce 2002). The gains are largest for low income families (those earning less than $15,000 per year increased at a 25% percent annual growth rate versus 11% for households earning $75,000 and above), and under represented ethnic and racial minorities (33% for Blacks, 30% for Hispanics, 20% for Whites and Asian American and Pacific Islanders). American Internet users are also engaged in a wide variety of activities—45% use e-mail, 36% use the Internet to search for products and services, 39% of individuals are making online purchases, and 35% are searching for health information (U.S. Department of Commerce, 2002).
Key Terms in this Chapter
Effective Use: The capacity and opportunity to integrate information and communication technology into the accomplishment of self or collaboratively identified goals. What is most important is not so much the physical availability of computers and the Internet but rather people’s ability to make use of those technologies to engage in meaningful social practices.
Historically Underserved Groups: Refers to those who lack access to computers and the Internet. Historically this has included Americans who have low-incomes, live in rural communities, have limited education, and are members of racial or ethnic minorities.
Content: The various genres of information available on the Internet. For instance, local content is information that is specific to a community, neighborhood, or area, such as businesses, housing, neighborhood services, and recreation activities. Community content is information about the neighborhood that promotes community development and facilitates community building. Examples include a listing of places where GED courses are offered, or a newsletter. Culturally relevant content is information that is significant to people with different cultural backgrounds.
Social Inclusion: Refers to the extent that individuals, families, and communities are able to fully participate in society and control their own destinies, taking into account a variety of factors related to economic resources, employment, health, education, housing, recreation, culture, and civic engagement.
Digital Divide: Refers to the gap that exists between these who have and those who do not have access to technology (telephones, computers, Internet access) and related services.