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Teens, Technology, and Digital Fault Lines

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At 8:45am today, I'm speaking on a panel about "Closing the Access Gap" at the Consortium for School Networking conference, so it seemed appropriate to start the day looking at new findings on teens, technology and access.

The Pew Internet and American Life Project at the Youth and Media Lab of the Berkman Center released another report in their series on teens and technology.

One metaphor that I've sometimes used is the idea of a digital fault line dividing more and less affluent families rather than a single digital divide. In times of rapid tectonic activity and technological change, new divides open and close along this fault line. Tracking those divides is important for thinking about how to create learning environments that equitably serve young people. The surveys conducted by the Pew Internet and American Life Project are among the best resources we have for tracking how old divides close and new ones open.

Several findings from this most recent study stand out. 95% of teens have access to the Internet, a number that has held steady since 2006. Smartphone ownership among teens has increased considerably: 37% of youth from 12-17 now own a smartphone compared to 23% in 2011. Interestingly, smartphone ownership is distributed more equitably that one might expect. 39% of teens in families earning less than $30,000 per year own smartphones, compared to 43% in homes earning more than $75,000 per year.*

Pew Phones.JPG

To me, the two most important findings are these: for many kids in low-income families, the phone is their primary pathway to the Internet. 30% of teens from families earning less than $30,000 a year say their cell phone is their primary means of connecting to the Internet. Tablet growth on the other hand, is happening most rapidly among the affluent. 31% of teens in families earning more than $75,000 have a tablet, compared to 16% of teens in families earning less than $30,000.

Put another way, if you are building curricular materials or learning experiences, and you want them to be widely accessible by diverse populations of students, you need to optimize for a handheld android screen before you start building that iPad app.

For regular updates, follow me on Twitter at @bjfr and for my papers, presentations and so forth, visit EdTechResearcher.

* There is a curious U-shaped distribution of smartphone ownership. 24% of youth in families earning $30K-$50K have a smartphone, and 38% of youth in families earning $50-$75K have a smartphone.

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