What’s Wireless Got to Do With the Digital Divide?

Yesterday the Pew Internet in American Life project released a report on wireless Internet use. When I first heard about the report I didn’t think very broadly about what the data might have to say about the impact of access for teens (and for libraries for that matter). But, when I read several news reports that highlighted findings that wireless access, particularly on mobile devices, is serving to lessen the digital divide I started thinking about teens. While not everyone has what some might consider traditional internet access at home – a wired or wireless connection that is used with a laptop or desktop – that doesn’t mean that the Internet isn’t available in the home. People are accessing the Internet with laptops and desktops and they are using game consoles and handheld devices for their access.

If outside of the school teens use handheld devices and gaming consoles to access the Internet, we need to look at how our resources are provided to the age group. We need to make sure to provide access to programs and services in ways that work well for someone using an Internet enabled device. For example:

  • It’s clearer now than ever before that we need to provide mobile versions of web pages, catalogs, and databases so that they display successfully on small screens. This is already something that libraries are doing, but perhaps we have to make this a bigger priority. (Mobile versions of library sites include New York Public Library and Skokie Public Library). If our web pages and databases aren’t easily read and scanned on the device someone is using at home, it’s likely that they will just look elsewhere, a place where the information is more easily read via the Internet enabled tool they use.
  • We need to embrace the kinds of technologies that teens use via their cell phones, including SMS. This includes text messaging ask a librarian services. On a handheld device this is probably the easiest and quickest way for teens to get answers. Again, if we aren’t providing the answers on these devices in this way perhaps a teen will go somewhere else that is.
  • Attention should be paid to developing and promoting applications for devices that support reading, searching, listening, viewing, and so on. Can teens download books, articles, audiobooks and read them on their handheld device or on a screen attached to a gaming console? Can they download a widget or application to their Internet enabled device in order to quickly call up the library catalog, a database, homework help tools, and so on? If this is how teens are accessing the Internet outside of school, shouldn’t these be tools the library provides?
  • If teens are using their devices as a main way to connect to the Internet, the school and public library needs to develop opportunities to use these devices in order to learn safe and smart use. Instead of banning mobile devices in schools, teens should have the chance to use them in the school setting for research, collaboration, and content creation. By providing teens that opportunity in the school setting we give them the chance to learn, with adults, how to critically think about their use of the device. Similarly, if public libraries provide programs and services that support and even embrace mobile technologies, librarians have an opportunity to embed within those programs and services discussions with teens of positive use of the technologies.

For a long time librarians and educators have said that teens don’t have Internet access at home, and have suggested that because of that the educational and leisure programs, services, and resources provided by the library should not focus too heavily on using the Internet in order to take part. Can we really continue to say and believe this if teens are accessing the Internet outside of school, just not in traditional ways? While the Pew Internet in American Life research was collected by surveying adults 18 and older, that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t relate to teens 12 to 18. I’d even venture to guess that it might be more true of teenagers.

About Linda W Braun

Linda W Braun is a YALSA Past President, the YALSA CE Consultant, and a learning consultant/project management coordinator at LEO: Librarians & Educators Online.
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One Comment

  1. “Yesterday the Pew Internet in American Life project released a report on wireless Internet use. ”

    Speaking of that Pew Research report, a representative of Pew just discussed its findings in a recent podcast about changing online demographics.

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