Smartphone Users Are Mostly Young, Minorities, or Wealthy; This Needs to be Reflected in How We Teach Net Literacy

If you don’t have a smartphone, chances are you are older, white, less affluent, and don’t have a college degree according to new research by the Pew Research Center Internet & American Life Project. No longer primarily a status symbol, smartphones have become the primary internet access point for millions of users, but there are large differences between who uses these phones, and how they use them.

It turns out the phone you use says a lot about you, for example, you are likely to have a smartphone if:

  • You’re younger than 50 – more than half of 18-29-year-olds own smartphones, followed by 45% of 30-to-49-year-olds. For those over 50 there is a steep cliff; only 24% of 50-to-64-year-olds use a smartphone.
  • You earn over $75k – nearly 60% of American’s who earn over 75k own smartphones. The percentage drops to about 37% among those earning between $50 -$74k annually. Note: smartphone penetration is slightly higher (40%) in the next-lowest income bracket, those earning $30 – $49k annually; this may be due to this group using their smartphone more often as their primary internet connection.
  • You’re a college grad – nearly half (48%) of college grads own smartphones, compared to 38% of those with some college education, 27% of high school grads, and 18% of those with less than a high school diploma.
  • You live in an urban or suburban area – geography matters; 38% of both suburban and urban residents own smartphones compared to 21% of rural residents.
  • You aren’t white – 44% of both blacks and Hispanics have smartphones; nearly 50% higher than the 30% smartphone ownership rate found among whites.

How you use your phone also says a lot about you. You are more likely to use your smartphone as your primary means of connecting to the internet if:

  • You’re younger than 30 – 42% of 18-to-29-year-olds say they most often use their smartphone for web access, which is twice as often as 30-to-49-year-olds (21%) and more than four times as often as smartphone owners 50 and older (10%).
  • You are in the lowest income bracket – 40% of smartphone owners with a household income less than $30,000 a year use their phone as their primary internet access, compared to 29% of those earning between $30 – $49k  and 17% of smartphone owners with household income more than $50k
  • You belong to an ethnic minority – 38% of black and Latino smartphone owners primarily use their phones for web access, more than double the 17% of white smartphone owners who do so.
  • You are less educated – 33% of smartphone owners with only a high school diploma primarily use their phones for web access compared to 27% of smartphone owners with some college education, and 13% of smartphone owners with a college degree.

These findings have significant implications for how we teach and implement online safety, security, privacy and digital citizenship.

Beyond simply being interesting stats, the picture painted by the data has significant bearing on how companies need to display their privacy settings and terms of use, how proposed legislation is developed, the importance of mobile security tools, and how online safety, security, privacy, digital literacy and ethics are taught at school and implemented in homes.

For companies:

  • How are you going to ensure that mobile only users can easily read your terms of use and privacy policies, and select their safety settings? The small screen experience needs to be optimized to give users easy control.
  • If the least wealthy are the most likely to use the phone as their primary access, how does the cost of mobile security apps impact their ability to protect their devices, their identities, and their sensitive information? They will need free, or very low cost, mobile security apps. Should these be offered as a bundle in their service? How will you drive awareness of this need?

For Regulators:

  • Writing legislative proposals about internet safety, security, privacy or education that does not fully cover mobile internet experiences and risks is unacceptably shortsighted. Even when using the same technologies and services as computers, mobile devices bring their own set of risks and opportunities into play and these must be addressed simultaneously.

For parents:

For Schools:

  • Blocking technology is not the answer, yet far too many schools still think this is the best course of action. We need to teach students to be capable digital citizens on all internet devices to be prepared for the workforce environment they will step into. You must figure out how to embrace and incorporate technology.
  • Recognizing that the way youth use technologies, the amount of time they spend on technologies, and the economic divide in the use and access of technologies is critical in effectively incorporating technology as a learning tool – particularly for minority youth. To learn more, see my blog Minority Youth Spend 13 Hours A day With Media – 4 ½ More than White Youth – What Does this Mean for Their Future?
  • Kids can readily use technologies, but that does not mean they understand the real risks or consequences that can accompany these tools. It is absurd that teaching internet safety/security/privacy/digital literacy/ethics is not mandatory in every school. To help you address this shortfall, the LOOKBOTHWAYS FOUNDATION has begun creating the K-12 NetSkills4Life curriculum, made freely available to schools, families, organizations and the public. The first two online interactive lessons for 6th graders are in place, and we will be rolling out more lessons for all grades as quickly as we can and funding is available.

Linda

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