There’s never been any shortage of “Digital Divides” for us to talk about. The haves versus the have nots, the young versus the old, the tech natives versus the technology-as-a-second-language folks.

But even if your patrons have the internet and know not to call it “The YouTube,” there’s another digital divide in America that can be just as limiting as not having a connection at all: how teens, and adults, are getting online.

Access to Broadband

The FCC reports that 94% of Americans have access to high speed internet, a huge increase from the 15% who answered the same way in 2003. But that still leaves 6% of Americans— over 19 million people– without access to high speed internet. Concentrated mainly in rural and tribal lands, the populations who can’t access the higher level functions of the internet are arguably the most in need. And in places where broadband is available, over 100 million Americans still do not subscribe to it.

The Introduction of Smartphones

At the same time, smartphone usage is growing among teenagers, giving kids who have never owned a computer a way to access the internet that’s personal and reliable. A recent Pew Center report found that 37% of teenagers own smartphones. For many, these phones have become their primary way of accessing and sharing information— from social networking to texting to accessing library resources.

The widespread use and availability of smartphones to these teens is a great advancement, and an important step in the battle to make the internet accessible to all. But smartphones, for as great as they are, are not a digital panacea. And that’s where libraries (and you) come in.

What Can’t a Smartphone Do?

Smartphones have proven themselves an incredible tool when it comes to connecting teens to the internet. From sharing pictures to getting directions to playing games, they have great utility in our everyday lives and the lives of our patrons.

But you can’t use a smartphone to fill out financial aid forms, or take practice exams– at least, not very effectively. A teen trying to apply to college on a smartphone will have a hard time, even assuming their phone’s browser can properly render the website. Without a home computer a teen can be connected to the internet through mobile devices, but only to certain aspects of the internet.

Mobile devices also rely on wireless connections to exchange information, and that limits the quantity of data available. A wired broadband connection is always faster than a wireless one; video streams faster, movies and songs download faster, and more content can be exchanged faster. While more and more teens are coming to rely on phones as primary computing devices, teens who lack access to desktop or laptop computers are limited in their ability to research, share, and completely connect with the internet.

Also: Devices Don’t Equal Digital Literacy

It’s easy to assume that all teens are digital savvy natives who, born with a cell phone in their hands, know instantly how to make them work. Watching a teen carry on two or three conversations at a time while simultaneously texting on their phone (without looking), it’s seductively simple to believe that they have this all figured out on their own.

While 95% of teenagers report using the internet regularly, 60% of teachers surveyed argue that reliance on the internet often hinders their students when it comes to finding reliable, credible sources. The same survey found that 83% of teachers reported feeling that there was an overwhelming amount of information on the internet for students, and 71% felt that students were trained to only utilize certain resources for research and information.

You see evidence of this every day. How often have you had a teen give up on finding something in your catalog because it doesn’t work like Google? Throwing up their hands and saying “you don’t have this!” because they misspelled “Gatsby” and have been conditioned to expect their search engine to fix the mistake for them?

With smartphones, teens have been let loose on the internet, given a portal to it that they can carry around at all times, and provided minimal training beyond “mind your privacy settings and don’t post bad pictures.” Just as they need training on databases and finding things on the desktops in your library, they need training on the computer that they carry in their pocket.

So: What Does This Mean For Librarians?

Internet access has been declared a basic human right by the United Nations, but a large group of people in the United States still lack reliable access to its full glory. Populations that could arguably benefit the most from being able to connect are kept from experiencing the full spectrum of possibilities that the internet provides, and simultaneously, more and more teens are using their phones as their primary method of accessing it.

As the role of smartphones in teen life grows by leaps and bounds, so does the need for them to be educated on those devices. Owning a phone doesn’t mean you know how to best utilize it, just as owning a chainsaw doesn’t make you Paul Bunyan. If a smartphone is going to be the main way that teens access the internet, communicate with friends, and share content, then it becomes more important than ever for them to be taught how to use them. How to find the right answer to questions they’re researching, express and troubleshoot issues with their tech, and find and connect to resources.

Digital literacy training on how (and when) to use phones for internet browsing is more important now than ever. More and more, we have started to view our phones as the be-all and end-all of tech-life. There’s always an app for that. But an equally important part of digital literacy is knowing which tool to use when, and if we can help our teens to understand the different options available, and make those other resources (library computers, laptops, printers, etc.) accessible, we can help better prepare them for what lies ahead.

Teens who come to the library already attached to a device are stuck in an odd middle-ground of digital literacy; they can talk-the-talk well enough that everyone assumes they know how to use their tech, including the teens themselves. Their devices connect them to the internet in a wonderful and pervasive way, but are also often intrinsically limiting when it comes to making full use of the internet. It’s our job as librarians to help guide them to better behaviors– from search techniques to troubleshooting to when a smartphone is just not the best tool for the job.

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