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The Digital Divide Comes Home

NOTE--I've had this post in draft form for several days, debating about whether or not to post it publicly. I've typically used my blog to share information I find or ideas I have. Only a few times has it veered into more personal realms. But lately I've also been using my blog to document my learning, to delve more deeply into my own thoughts, and to gain greater clarity about things that I've experienced and what they mean. What I'm about to share is in that vein.

In my work life, I stay on top of issues related to the digital divide. I work with organizations that serve the disadvantaged and lack of access to technology is a real issue in terms of getting equality of opportunity and developing self-sufficiency work skills. It's an issue I care deeply about and that has caused me to engage in some heated debates with several people. But for me, the digital divide has basically been something "out there." Something that happens to other people, not to me or my family. That is, until recently.

To understand what I'm about to say, you need to know some things about my personal life.

I am a white woman, remarried a few years ago to a Black man. I have two daughters from my first marriage, 19 (in college) and 15, both white. My husband has a 17 year-old son, who is Black. My 4-year relationship with my husband has given me some first-hand, inside experience with the realities of the racial and socio-economic inequities that exist in our society as I've looked at what my daughters have had in their lives vs. what my stepson experiences. Now we can add technology to the mix.

Some Context
My daughters have had the good fortune to attend upper-middle class suburban schools for the past 7 years. The median income in their community is $92,336.

My stepson attends an urban high school in a smallish city where he lives with his mother and stepfather. There, the median income is $28,637.

At Home
All of our children currently have access to personal computers and the Internet at home. However, my daughters have had it since 1995, with broadband access since 2003. From a young age, they've been on computers and online, at first with our guidance and support to show them the possibilities, and as they got older, on their own.

In contrast, my stepson did not get access to a computer with Internet until a few years ago. And when he did, it was with little support or guidance from his mom and stepfather, in large part because they've had little experience themselves. 

As a result of having such easy access to the Internet from home, my daughters are avid users of IM, Facebook, MySpace and YouTube. They've both had extensive experience in uploading media to the web, using the Web for research and in using blogging software (first Livejournal, then Blogger). And both have had email for several years.

My stepson, on the other hand, just got an email account and has only begun to browse through YouTube. He does not have a MySpace or Facebook account and he doesn't use IM. The only reason he's progressed this far in using technology is because my husband and I realized in the past few months that if he wasn't getting it from us, then he wouldn't be getting it anywhere.

At School
At school, my daughters have always had access to up-to-date computers and technology is integrated into many of their class projects. They work with a librarian who has achieved a national reputation for excellence in using technology for research and content creation. Many of the tools they've learned how to use were introduced to them in their classes or by their friends, who are equally comfortable with and conversant in technology. We've had to do very little to help them with this stuff because it has become an integrated part of their educational landscape and the experiences of their peers. While they may not know all the latest tools, their prior exposure to technology has made them very comfortable with technology and put them in a good position for expanding their skills, which they do daily.

For my stepson, on the other hand, there appears to be nothing done with technology at school. We see no evidence of technology-enabled projects or  use of the Internet. Part of the reason he didn't have an email account or use IM is because his peers haven't been exposed to those things either. Social networking generally starts locally, at least for kids, who begin connecting with their friends after school online. If no one you know is doing this, then you probably won't be doing it either. And if no one is showing you what's possible and how to navigate the vast world of the Internet, then it quickly becomes overwhelming and hard to use.

What Does All This Mean?
Until a few months ago, my husband and I hadn't really paid attention to or thought about the different technology worlds in which our children lived. We obviously knew that there were economic and racial disparities that impacted our children's lives, but we hadn't thought specifically about the differences in technology use.

Like a lot of people, I think we assumed that my stepson was getting exposure to technology in school.  I'm not sure why I thought this because it's not like schools have been out in front on technology adoption, especially poorer urban schools. I guess what happened was that we just didn't pay attention. We assumed that he was getting what he needed. But then my husband started helping my stepson apply for jobs and we realized that he didn't even have an email account. As we delved deeper, we began to see the huge digital divide between my stepson and my daughters, and this in a family where we are more educated, more aware and have greater access to technology than a lot of other families.

I see some major implications in this and they've made the digital divide even more concrete and worrisome to me.Very bluntly, my girls already have tremendous advantages because they are white and they come from a higher socio-economic bracket. This gives them access to greater educational resources and in a world where "who you know" is just about everything, they already have a leg up. Now let's throw in the fact that they have much greater comfort with and exposure to the technologies that mean better-paying, higher status work in the future.  That's creating some virtually insurmountable odds.

My stepson is fortunate because his father and I have now realized the extent to which we need to very intentionally expose him to and teach him about the technologies that are available. Now that it's hit us-- like a large hammer to the skull--we can do something about this divide in our family. But what about those kids who don't have parents who know what we know? What about those families where the only way to get online is at school or the public library where your access to sites and time online is restricted? These are the kids who go to schools where they don't have books, let alone computers, so thinking that they will develop the same skills as their more fortunate peers is delusional.

I know that I'm not saying anything new here. Of course we know that there's a digital divide. News of it is everywhere.  I wanted to share what I've learned, though, because I think it adds another layer, at least for me.

This experience  shows me how insidious this divide is. If it can happen in a family where we know the divide exists, it's that much easier for it to persist in the larger world. It also shows me even more explicitly that it's not just about putting a computer in someone's home or having a lab at school. If there's no one there to model how you can use the tool, or show you about the possibilities, you've only done part of the work. If none of a kid's peers are online, technology doesn't become integrated into life in the same ways it does for kids who do have that option. Digital natives become natives because there are others to show them the way.

Access to technology isn't enough, although it's a big part of it. What we really need are people who can show those on the other side of the divide what's possible with these tools and how they can help them build a richer life. We need to recognize that it's only through ongoing coaching and exposure that people can truly become "natives." And we need to realize that the digital divide is not going to solve itself. At least that's what I've learned.


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Thank you for sharing your story! You absolutely hit the nail on the head when you talk about closing the "digital divide" requires more than just providing access to a computer and broadband.

I discussed the issue the other day on my blog here: http://bendingthetwigs.blogspot.com/2007/07/more-to-economic-inequality-than-just.html

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