Smartphones + The Digital Divide


Last week, my cable/wifi/electricity went out for about an hour in the middle of a storm, and maybe I freaked out a little bit. My phone battery was on 4%, Netflix was down, and the work I planned on finishing up that night was put to a halt. It ended up being a relaxing evening as I finished off a novel surrounded by candles and a flashlight, but nevertheless, my nightly routine was severely impacted by the lack of (mostly) necessary resources. Major #firstworldproblems, am I right?

This one hour without internet is a lifestyle for so many – cue the digital divide. For those who don’t know, the digital divide is “the growing gap between the underprivileged members of society, especially the poor, rural, elderly, and handicapped portion of the population who do not have access to computers or the internet; and the wealthy, middle-class, and young Americans living in urban and suburban areas who have access.” 

As I’m addressing the topic of digital divide, I want to note that I am so privileged – I have mega fast internet at home, unlimited data from my cellular provider, a laptop and desktop computer, a tablet, a smartphone, and probably other gadgets I’m forgetting about. To those reading this – take just a second to acknowledge that you’re probably reading this on a smartphone or computer and you’ve got it good.

One of my first thoughts surrounding the digital divide was: “maybe the addition of smartphones is bridging this digital divide.”

Are smartphones addressing the problem? They allow us to access the internet practically anywhere, without being forced to subscribe to broadband internet (wifi) at home. In fact, 1/3 of American’s don’t even have high-speed internet access at home, so that means a good chunk of smartphone users depend on data from cellular providers or free wifi.

Let’s look at a scenario where internet is necessary: applying for college.

Most college applications, like The Common Application, are done entirely online. From researching potential colleges to writing application essays and saving them as PDFs, practically the entire process is done over the internet and on a computer.

Completing this process on a smartphone seems like an absolute nightmare to me for a few reasons:

  • Small phone screens don’t compare to computer screens – images may be cut off and text could be obscured in a “mobile view.”
  • Personally, I usually have 5-10 tabs open at a time when completing projects – switching back and forth between tabs on a smartphone makes the process timely.
  • How would I type a paper on a phone? Is that even a thing? If it was, where would I save it?
  • Is it possible to submit proper documents on a smartphone like reference letters and transcripts? If it is, it probably isn’t easy.

Are smartphones helping those without broadband at home get online? Yes.

Are smartphones the answer to bridging the digital divide? No.

Here’s a few options for addressing the addition of smartphones, but lack of broadband internet and personal computers in households:

  • Investing into community centers and public libraries that offer computers and reliable internet free of charge
  • Giving students time at or after school to use computer labs
  • Government-subsidized internet for low-income households
  • Economically-priced personal computers
  • Adapting applications and school assignments to become mobile-friendly

Technology convergence isn’t narrowing the digital divide – let us remain vigilant in identifying and strategizing the best solutions that will.