Are minorities digitally disengaged?



When the World Wide Web first entered our vernacular, just a couple of decades ago, it was supposed to be the great equalizer; an egalitarian platform where the tech-savvy could come together as a community and debate or play their time away. At the time, blacks and Latinos were much less likely to have Internet access than their white counterparts were. The gap has since narrowed, and it has been noted that U.S. Hispanics are the fastest-growing audience to embrace social networks.

But, it’s now the way in which minorities interact with the Internet that has some experts believing there is reason to worry. A recent article in the Charlotte Observer highlights the problem;

Today, as mobile technology puts computers in our pockets, Latinos and blacks are more likely than the general population to access the Web by cellular phones, and they use their phones more often to do more things.

But now some see a new "digital divide" emerging with Latinos and blacks being challenged by more, not less, access to technology. It's tough to fill out a job application on a cell phone, for example. Researchers have noticed signs of segregation online that perpetuate divisions in the physical world. And blacks and Latinos may be using their increased Web access more for entertainment than empowerment.

Fifty-one percent of Hispanics and 46 percent of blacks use their phones to access the Internet, compared with 33 percent of whites, according to a July 2010 Pew poll. Forty-seven percent of Latinos and 41 percent of blacks use their phones for e-mail, compared with 30 percent of whites. The figures for using social media like Facebook via phone were 36 percent for Latinos, 33 percent for blacks and 19 percent for whites.

A greater percentage of whites than blacks and Latinos still have broadband access at home, but laptop ownership is now about even for all these groups, after black laptop ownership jumped from 34 percent in 2009 to 51 percent in 2010, according to Pew.

Increased access and usage should be good things, right?

"I don't know if it's the right time to celebrate. There are challenges still there," says Craig Watkins, an associate professor at the University of Texas at Austin and author of "The Young and the Digital." He adds: "We are much more engaged, but now the questions turn to the quality of that engagement, what are people doing with that access."

Although there are countless websites dedicated to promoting unity and conscientiousness among minority groups, none are as popular as, say, Facebook. And on Facebook, it’s more likely people are reading updates from their favorite former fling than from their favorite cause.  No judgment here; I don’t know anyone who’s not guilty of spending much too much time refreshing their newsfeed in hopes of new updates to further distract them from less-lofty pursuits, myself included. It would do us all some good, though, to try giving mindful social networking a go.

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