SALT LAKE CITY — Even though 95 percent of teens have a cellphone, those without internet at home face hurdles that could negatively impact their education, experts say.
A new Pew Research Center survey about the gap between internet haves and have-nots, often called the "digital divide," found that 17 percent of teens ages 13 to 17 had been unable to do homework at home because they lacked a reliable computer or internet connection and 12 percent had relied on public Wi-Fi to complete a school assignment.
More than one-third of teens, 35 percent, said they often or sometimes use their cellphones to write papers, take quizzes and complete homework assignments.
This digital "homework gap” was particularly pronounced for teens from families making less than $30,000 a year, 45 percent of whom reported doing homework on a phone; as well as black and Hispanic teens — 25 percent of black teens and 17 percent of Hispanic teens lacked reliable connections at home.
"The overall population has hit somewhat of a saturation point of people having smartphones or going online," said Monica Anderson, a senior researcher at Pew, "but there is still a swath of the population that aren't adopting these technologies, for one reason or another."
Relying solely on a phone
In a previous Pew survey, the main reported reason for going without broadband internet service in the home was the cost, said Anderson, both of the internet and the computer itself. Many people also reported that their cellphone provided enough access so they didn't need broadband.
After more than a decade and a half without internet, Sonia Navarro of Bountiful got broadband internet two months ago, so her 17-year-old daughter and 19-year-old son could get paid by their part-time employers. The monthly bill of $50 is a bit of a sacrifice, she said in Spanish, but it's a cost split by her teens.
Before an in-home connection, Navarro said her teens would spend at least three to four hours at the library roughly three times a week, studying.
It's better now, she says, but they still don't have a computer, just a tablet and a phone.
"While most low- and moderate-income families have some type of digital device and internet access, those data do not tell the full story," according to a 2016 report from the Joan Ganz Cooney Center, an independent innovation and research lab that studies children and media. "Not all connectivity is created equal, and not all devices provide the same kinds of online experiences."
It's hard to enter large amounts of text on a small screen, many websites aren't mobile-friendly, users might exceed data limits, resulting in slower service or higher bills, and some teens may even be required to share devices within a household.
While teaching first-year writing at the University of Utah, Shauna Edson had a 7-page paper turned in by a student who had typed the entire thing on her phone because she didn't have access to a computer and didn't know about free resources online, like Google Docs.
"It's awful," she said. "Then, as an instructor, are we looking at the content or are we looking at the formatting?"
Students who rely on mobile-only use don't get a "rich and full experience" compared to content accessed on a computer, said Norma E. Fernandez, chief programs officer with EveryoneOn, a national nonprofit focused on helping all households get connected to the internet. They also miss out on computer literacy skills and even keyboarding practice, she said.
In addition to school assignments, the Cooney Center found that kids who don't have broadband internet at home are less likely to go online to pursue their interests. Only 35 percent of 10- to 13-year-olds with mobile-only access use their phones to look up things they're interested in, compared to 52 percent of kids who have an internet connection in their home.
Consequences of underconnectivity
Before the Urzua family got internet, Alondra Urzua, 16, would get to school around 6:40 a.m., some 40 minutes before classes started, to complete her online homework — usually watching videos for her ceramics class and answering questions about the different techniques.
"It was horrible," she said. "I felt really stressed out."
The Urzuas recently learned about a program through their local elementary school that helps the family pay for internet (they pay $10 a month instead of $70) and the high school donated an older desktop computer.
It's been less stressful these last two months, Urzua said, although the internet speed isn't very fast, which means she and her 11-year-old sister and 8-year-old brother have to be patient, waiting for pages to load.
"Everything is online," she says of the entire family's homework. "Book reports, everything."
A study from 2015 called, "Taking the Pulse of High School Student Experiences in America, Phase One: Access to Technology," found that nearly 97 percent of students said they are required to use the internet to do their homework, with 31 percent saying they need it daily.
Nearly half of students said they couldn't complete an assignment because they lacked internet or a computer, and 42 percent said no internet resulted in a lower grade on an assignment, according to the report by the Hispanic Heritage Foundation, myCollegeOptions and the Family Online Safety Institute.
Underconnected students may fall behind in classes and also have fewer opportunities to explore new technologies and develop necessary tech skills, says Vikki Katz, an associate professor of communication and information at Rutgers University and one of the authors of the Cooney Center study.
There's also a growing concern that kids who aren't familiar with technology and even computers may be at a disadvantage when taking standardized tests, says Katz, which are increasingly administered online.
"The concern for those of us who work in this arena," she says, "is that digital inequalities could be making more persistent social inequalities worse."
The digital divide is "something we wrestle with quite a bit," says San Juan School District superintendent Ron Nielson.
San Juan County, in the southeast corner of Utah, has Utah's highest percentage of the population living in poverty (31) and second-highest percentage of children (32.5) living in poverty, according to Voices for Utah Children.
Nielson's district is well stocked with computers and tablets in the classrooms, many in a 1:1 student/tech ratio, and kids are very involved with technology, he says.
Yet, a student's experience at school and home are often vastly different.
"We find we have to always (keep) in mind that we have a pretty significant portion of our students who do not go home to ... internet and there are some who do not even go home to (electrical) power," Nielson said.
Even if kids tell teachers and administrators they have access to the internet through a cellphone, Nielson said they may run out of data halfway through the month. Or they're relying on the phone of a friend, which may not always be available.
The district offers after-school lab time in the three area high schools for kids who need to stay to complete web-based assignments. Then, they can take a late bus home — a ride that for many students is one or two hours.
“So the parents are seeing them a couple hours, then it’s time to go to bed and do it again tomorrow,” Nielson said, adding that getting better internet access in the county is both an issue of infrastructure and affordability.
Edson, the teacher who painfully reviewed the 7-page phone essay, is now the Salt Lake Public Library's digital inclusion coordinator — meaning she spends her days working to get people connected to and familiar with the internet.
The library offers tutoring to help adults feel confident using computers and a checkout service where adults can check out a laptop and a mobile hot spot for three weeks at a time. Kids can take coding classes, explore in their tinker lab, music recording booth and studio with green screens and cameras and have access to numerous tech programs.
The goals are to help patrons become more familiar with the latest technology, as well as think critically about their use and become more "creators of technology instead of just users," Edson says.
Afterschool hours are popular with teens who fill the computer labs — one of the only places to use a public computer for free, says Edson. They work on homework or just socialize with friends, often because that opportunity doesn't exist at home.
"For a lot of people who have a lot of access to tech, they tend to think that it's more of a negative thing, (and talk about) tech diets and reducing screen time," she said. "But when people don't have access at all it really inhibits our ability to function in society."
But not everyone is eager to get kids more time on screens.
A recent New York Times story highlighted the efforts being made by Silicon Valley executives and parents to curb their kids' screen time entirely. Another Times article highlighted grassroots work being done by three mothers in the Kansas City area who started an organization for like-minded parents who want to keep their kids off screens.
“The digital divide was about access to technology," Chris Anderson, the former editor of Wired magazine, told The New York Times, "and now that everyone has access, the new digital divide is limiting access to technology."
Katz brushed off such reports as unscientific, saying they rely on anecdotes rather than systematic research.
She believes it's better to focus on quality of time spent online and context of use, rather than "flattening of all tech use (to) a time measure" or "demonizing screen time as if it's evil and it's all the same," she said.
Rather than those with access shutting out screens entirely, Katz encourages parents to consider the risks and rewards, and work to minimize risks while leveraging the technology as a useful tool to help themselves and their teens develop skills, pursue interests and contribute to a broader community.13 comments on this story
To help create an American Academy of Pediatrics-encouraged Family Media Plan, parents can ask themselves: "What is the screen time replacing?
If a kindergarten student is plunked in front of an iPad instead of interacting with and learning to negotiate play time with their peers, that's a problem, Katz said.
"What's a healthy balance?" Katz asks. "As long as it's not displacing the things that are critical to their development, it might be used as a tool to enhance them. (Which means) maybe we don't need to be as afraid of it as we sometimes are."