What Digital Divide?

To wrap up this week’s Tell Me Mobile series about technology in communities of color, host Michel Martin explores the downsides for a new generation living in a wired world. She speaks with S. Craig Watkins. He’s a professor of Radio, Television and Film at the University at the University of Texas at Austin, and the author of The Young and the Digital: What the Migration to Social Network Sites, Games, and Anytime, Anywhere Media Means for Our Future.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

Today we continue our series Tell Me Mobile. Despite the general assumption that minority communities are not keeping pace with new digital innovations for whatever reason, ethnicity, relatability or just the money to buy stuff, it turns out that young Latino and African-Americans are using mobile devices and their varied applications more than any other group.

Yesterday, we looked at some of the reasons behind this trend with two digital thinkers, both men, Smokey Fontaine of Interactive One and Mark Lopez of Terra Networks USA. Both made the case that this intense involvement with the mobile space has the potential to go a long way toward bridging the digital divide.

It is worth noting that both men work at companies that provide content tailored to black and Latino users. If you want to hear that conversation, please just go to our website. Just go to npr.org, click on programs, then on TELL ME MORE.

Today, though, we wanted to ask if there are drawbacks to this phenomenon of widespread mobile use. Craig Watkins has spent over 10 years studying young people's digital behavior. He's an associate professor at the University of Texas at Austin and he joins us now from member station KUT in Austin. Welcome, thank you for joining us.

Professor CRAIG WATKINS (University of Texas at Austin): Thank you for having me on.

MARTIN: Now, professor, you wrote a book titled "The Young and the Digital: What the Migration to Social Network Sites, Games, and Anytime, Anywhere Media Means for Our Future." So the first thing I wanted to ask is just, what's your general sense of particularly the subject we're focusing on? The intense interest that young African-Americans and Latinos have with mobile devices. Why do you think that they use these devices more than other groups?

Mr. WATKINS: I think one of the main reasons has to do with, you know, the fact that black and Latino youth are more likely to live in households where broadband Internet is not available. So the kinds of things that they want to do online, which are typically, you know, watching videos, playing games, if you don't have access to broadband, it becomes virtually impossible to do those kinds of things.

So the mobile has become a kind of alternative gateway to those kinds of activities. Another reason I think has to do with the fact that black and Latino youth oftentimes live in spaces and environments where their access to technology is either limited or kind of surveilled in ways that make them uncomfortable. And so the mobile device gives them more privacy, gives them more control over what they like to do with their Internet lives.

MARTIN: Yesterday, our two guests made the point that this intense involvement is overall a positive thing because it gets kids to understand that the technology is theirs. It belongs to them. That they have ownership of it. It's not something that's for other people, and that that can then lead to an interest in, you know, engineering, technology, computers and so forth.

So they made the case for the positive side of it. Let's talk about the other side of it. Do you think that there's a negative side to this intense involvement with these devices?

Mr. WATKINS: I think there is. And more specifically I think there are certain consequences that we certainly need to be aware of and able to address. And so one of the negative things that has to be considered is, you know, how are young black and Latinos using their mobile devices? Are they using them primarily and much of the data suggests that they are using them primarily to interact with their friends, to listen to music, to play games.

And while those activities are certainly, you know, viable and can be argued as important, it doesn't necessarily suggest that they're using their access to the Internet via their mobile devices for social educational or civic related kinds of matters.

MARTIN: But is there any sense that the white kids are using them for those purposes either?

Mr. WATKINS: You know, you do have access to other ways of getting to the Internet. In other words, they're not simply restricted to their mobile devices. And given that the mobile device is something that's considered more personal, something more social, something more entertainment driven, when you don't have access to other means of the Internet, other means of a sort of digital media environment, I think it does create limited opportunities for black and Latino youth who are going online primarily via their mobile device.

And if I could maybe make one other point. I think what's also happening is that black and Latino youth are going online at a time where if they're living in households without laptops, without computers, that oftentimes means that maybe their parents or their guardians aren't as active online as they possibly could be.

So what you see is a kind of generational disconnect within black and Latino youth households where they aren't necessarily getting the guidance. Where they aren't necessarily able to have conversations or meaningful conversations with their parents or guardians about what's happening on Facebook, about the kinds of images, about the kinds of messages that friends are sharing with each other.

And I think those kinds of conversations, that lack of guidance, that lack of mentoring is something that I think is quite crucial in young people's digital lives and how they navigate these experiences.

MARTIN: I think what you're talking about is the fact that you can relatively easily monitor or limit access to certain websites or cable television channels on a family device like a television set or a home computer that's sitting in the kitchen or sitting in the den, okay. Whereas it's very hard to monitor the websites that kids access on their mobile devices, it's very hard to monitor their access to social media sites if they're using personal devices.

Mr. WATKINS: Absolutely. And that, let's be frank, that's one of the appeals of the mobile to teens, right? Is that it provides, again, that kind of autonomy, that kind of privacy, that kind of control over the media and information that they access.

But the other thing that I think I'm trying to allude to is we're beginning to understand that even though young people have sort of led the way in some respects when it comes to texting, have led the way in some respects when it comes to social network sites like Facebook, that there still is a reason to believe that parents and that adults in their lives are important for helping them to navigate some of the ethical issues that they may encounter online.

So let's say for example and we came across this in our research, you know, a young woman at her high school who's being sort of bullied around by her friends online. She lives in a household, right, where her parents have no clue what's happening, have no idea what Facebook is, have no idea what she's doing online. And so they are completely incapable of helping her negotiate and navigate that situation.

And it turned out to be a pretty dramatic and profound experience for her, which, in some respects, could have been dealt with if she lived in a household or lived in an environment where she could at least have basic conversations about what was happening in her digital life.

MARTIN: Is that, though, more of a concern for minority youth than it is for youth from other backgrounds? Because, frankly, the cases that have come to our attention that have resulted in some seriously tragic consequences, none of those cases to this point have involved minority youth, interestingly enough.

Mr. WATKINS: These issues in no way are sort of unique to black and Latino youth. And in fact you can make a case that some of these issues are quite pronounced in other communities in some respect.

And so, again, it's not that these activities or behaviors are unique to them, but I do think when we consider the environment out of which black and Latino youth are participating in these kinds of activities, not all environments are equal, right?

In other words, what we found is that in sort of black and Latino communities and black and Latino schools, that these kinds of opportunities for engaging with these issues are quite rare. In other words, not only are children and students not having access to these kinds of conversational opportunities, it's rare that parents have access to these opportunities as well.

And what it does is it diminishes, I think the capabilities of the larger environment to be a kind of supporting and nurturing environment that helps kids manage these issues much more efficiently or at least potentially much more efficiently.

MARTIN: Craig Watkins is an associate professor at the University of Texas at Austin. He's the author of "The Young and the Digital," among other books. He joined us from member station KUT in Austin, Texas. Professor Watkins, thank you.

Mr. WATKINS: Thank you, Michel.

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