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Like all of us who grew up with computers as the sole portal to software and the Internet, I naturally think about laptops and desktops when I think about the digital divide. As a kid, having a computer of one’s own was a clear sign of affluence. The original Mac cost $2,495 in 1984, which is a staggering $5,800 in today’s dollars—well over 10 percent of the median U.S. income.
Unsurprisingly, an enormous gulf emerged in the decades that followed between the have-PCs and the have-not-PCs. That gulf unfortunately still exists today. According to a recent, representative survey of 2,600 children between the ages of 8 and 18, only 25 percent of teenagers in families with incomes below $35,000 have their own laptops. In families with incomes above $100,000, 62 percent of teenagers do.
So the digital divide, in one sense, holds. But if our conception of the divide fixates on the computers many of us grew up with, we miss a remarkable story about the recent rapid adoption of smartphones and tablets, including—and perhaps especially—in low-income areas.
The same Apple that sold a nearly-$6,000 computer in 1984—which an internal Apple memo said was for the "person in the street"—released a new iPhone last month that cost $399. Android phones can be purchased for even less. Tablets are available for less than $100.
This is all still very much real money, and especially for people living below the poverty line, it remains a stretch financially. Yet many have indeed stretched to get these devices into their homes. The necessity and popularity of these devices are of a different order of magnitude than the desire for laptops and desktops. Phones are where Snapchat, Kik, and—above all—Facebook live.
The result? According to Common Sense, 51 percent of teenagers in low-income families have their own smartphones, and 48 percent of tweens in those families have their own tablets. Note that these are their own devices, not devices they have to borrow from someone else. Among middle-income families (that is, between $35,000 and $100,000), 53 percent of tweens have their own tablets and 69 percent of teenagers have their own smartphones, certainly higher but by a lot less than one might imagine.
If we pull back and look at households in general, the gap narrows in other ways. This winter, the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop published the first nationally representative telephone survey of lower-income parents on issues related to digital connectivity. The study, conducted by the research firm SSRS, included nearly 1,200 parents with school-aged children, interviewed in both Spanish and English, via landlines and cell phones. It was weighted to be representative of the American population.
In this comprehensive survey, a striking 85 percent of families living below the poverty line have some kind of digital device, smartphone or tablet, in their household. Seventy-three percent had one or more smartphones, compared to 84 percent for families above the poverty line. These are vastly changed numbers from just a few years ago. A 2011 study by Common Sense showed that in lower-income (under $30,000) households with children, only 27 percent of them had a smartphone, compared to 57 percent for households with children and income over $75,000.