Opportunity for all? Technology and learning in lower-income families

Digital divide Internet access Access to information Digital inclusion United States of America

1. Most low- and moderate-income families have some form of Internet connection, but many are under-connected, with mobile-only access and inconsistent connectivity. Nine in ten (94%) families have some kind of Internet access, whether through a computer and Internet connection at home, or through a smart mobile device with a data plan. Even among families below the poverty level, nine in ten (91%) are connected in some way. However, many lower-income families are under-connected. For example, one quarter (23%) of families below the median income level and one third (33%) of those below the poverty level rely on mobile-only Internet access. And many experience interruptions to their Internet service or constrained access to digital devices. Among families who have home Internet access, half (52%) say their access is too slow, one quarter (26%) say too many people share the same computer, and one fifth (20%) say their Internet has been cut off in the last year due to lack of payment. Among families with mobile-only access, three in ten (29%) say they have hit the data limits on their plan in the past year, one-quarter (24%) say they have had their phone service cut off in the past year due to lack of payment, and one fifth (21%) say too many people share the same phone for them to be able to get the time on it that they need.

2. Families headed by Hispanic immigrants are less connected than other low- and moderate-income families. One in ten (10%) immigrant Hispanic families have no Internet access at all, compared with 7% of U.S.-born Hispanics, 5% of Whites, and 1% of Blacks. Four in ten (41%) Hispanic immigrant parents report mobile-only Internet access, compared with 25% of Blacks, 16% of Whites, and 17% of U.S.-born Hispanics below the median income. One in five (20%) immigrant Hispanic parents say that they do not go online at all, even occasionally (compared with just 4% of Whites and U.S.-born Hispanics, and 2% of Blacks). And just under half (44%) of immigrant Hispanic parents say they do not use computers, whether at work, school, or home, even occasionally.

3. The main reason some families do not have home computers or Internet access is because they cannot afford it, but discounted Internet programs are reaching very few. Four in 10 parents without a home computer (40%) or home Internet access (42%) say the main reason they do not have these items is because they are too expensive. This is three times as many as those who said they decided they did not need Internet access (13%) and nearly twice as many as the proportion who said they do not need a computer (22%). Yet only 6% of those with incomes below 185% of poverty (a common eligibility level for discounted service) say they have ever signed up for low- cost Internet access through programs specifically for lower-income families. key findings 2 The federal poverty level for a family of four in 2015 was $24,250. Home versus mobile-only Internet access: In this report, “home access” is defined as having a laptop or desktop computer and a way to connect those devices to the Internet while at home. “Mobile-only access” is defined as being able to connect to the Internet through a smart device such as a tablet or smartphone, without having a computer at home. “No access” is defined as not being able to connect to the Internet through a device owned by the respondent or in the respondent’s household. 6

4. Low- and moderate-income parents use the Internet for a broad range of purposes, but mobile-only families are less likely to do certain online activities. Parents with Internet access say they often or sometimes go online to look for information (95%), stay in touch with family and friends (83%), get news (78%), bank or pay bills online (67%), shop online (58%), and apply for jobs or services (52%). But parents with mobile-only access are much less likely to engage in many of these online activities. For example, they are 30 percentage points less likely to shop online (36% vs. 66% of those with home access), 25 percentage points less likely to use online banking or bill-paying (49% vs. 74%), 14 percentage points less likely to apply for jobs or services online (42% vs. 56%), and 12 percentage points less likely to get news or follow local events online (70% vs. 82%).

5. Children from low- and moderate-income families use computers and the Internet for a variety of educational activities, but those without home access are less likely to go online to pursue their interests. Among 10- to 13-year-olds who use computers or the Internet, 81% often or sometimes use computers or the Internet to do homework, and about four in ten use computers or the Internet to write stories or blogs (44%), connect with teachers (40%), and talk with other students about school projects. Among all 6- to 13-year-olds who use computers or the Internet, eight in ten use them to play educational games (81%) and to look up things that they are interested in (81%), while seven in ten (70%) use them to do something creative, such as make their own art or music. But children without home Internet access are less likely to go online to look up information about things that they are interested in: 35% of those with mobile- only access say they “often” do this, compared to 52% of those with home access.

6. Parents feel largely positive about the Internet and digital technology, but many also have concerns. The vast majority of parents agree that computers and mobile devices help children learn important skills (89%); that the Internet exposes children to important new ideas and information (88%); using computers and tablets in class helps prepare children for important tests (84%); that the use of technology in the classroom improves the quality of children’s education (80%); and that computers and mobile devices offer children new and interesting means of self-expression (78%). At the same time, three out of four parents (74%) worry about their child being exposed to inappropriate content online; 63% believe that time with technology detracts from time spent in other important activities; 51% worry about online bullying; 34% worry that teachers know less about their child’s individual needs due to time spent using technology at school; and 18% say technology in the classroom is a distraction that hurts children’s education. Immigrant Hispanic parents are more likely than White, Black, or U.S.-born Hispanic parents to worry that teachers know less about their child’s individual needs due to technology use in the classroom.

7. Children and parents frequently learn with, and about, technology together, especially in families with the lowest incomes and where parents have less education. Among families in which the parent and child both use the Internet, 77% of parents say they have helped their children with using digital technology, and more than half (53%) say their children have helped them. Among parents who did not graduate from high school, 62% say their child has helped them with technology, compared with 45% of parents who graduated from college. Among families with more than one 6- to 13-year-old and a computer in the home, 81% of children often or sometimes help each other learn about computers or mobile devices (including 44% who “often” do so). More than half (53%) of children from the lowest income group (less than $25,000 a year) “often” help each other learn about computers and technology, compared to 33% of those in the higher-income group ($45,000–65,000 a year).

Publication Details
Access Rights Type: