STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Here's an update on what's sometimes called the digital divide. For years, surveys showed African-Americans and Latinos had fewer computers at home than white people did. That might still be true, but something else seems to be happening with cell phones. Blacks and English-speaking Latinos are more likely to use cell phone features like text messaging, emails and music. NPR's Felix Contreras reports on the reasons why.
FELIX CONTRERAS: You want to know who's using fancy phones? Check out these three teenagers pausing at a crosswalk in a busy pedestrian mall.
Can I ask you want you're doing right now?
Ms. JASMINE MILLER: I am texting.
CONTRERAS: And who are you texting?
Ms. MILLER: This guy.
CONTRERAS: Jasmine Miller and her friends Alexis and Jamila White are on the way home after an evening out in a Washington, D.C. suburb. Miller is a 16-year-old African-American. Sisters Alexis and Jamila are 16 and 13, and are Panamanian. They represent one of the four main reasons why blacks and Latinos rank so high as users: networking - meaning they text, and now they've pulled their parents in. Sisters Alexis and Jamila.
Ms. ALEXIS WHITE: I mean, they text to us to, like, tell us, while they're working, like, what we're going to do after school.
Ms. JAMILA WHITE: Well, my dad thinks it's cool.
Ms. JAMILA WHITE: Yeah. He's just learned all this new technology.
CONTRERAS: That cross-generational exchange is typical of how the use of technology catches on, then spreads among just about all ethnic groups. It just happens more among blacks and Hispanics.
Both the Pew Center and the Nielsen Company show blacks and Hispanics are using their phones more robustly than whites. You can see the numbers from the Pew report on our Web site.
Nielsen's numbers say Hispanics pay about $10 more per month on their cell phone bills than the average because of the increased services.
Unidentified Woman: (Spanish spoken)
CONTRERAS: In a cell phone store just off the pedestrian mall, sales rep Gustavo Rojas is selling a Spanish-speaking couple an upgrade on their cell phone service. The customers don't have a computer at home, so they're adding texting and an Internet connection.
Their purchase represents reason number two: A mobile upgrade is cheaper than paying for home broadband and a computer. Rojas says he has seen advanced use increase among his customers.
Mr. GUSTAVO ROJAS (Cell Phone Sales Representative): People are so sophisticated now that, you know, in their countries, they may not have been so tech-savvy, but here they come and they use a service and they know how to chat better than I do, you know. They come and show me things rather than me showing them things, sometimes.
CONTRERAS: Just down the street from the store, Ornelio Perez is waiting for a bus after a day at his landscaping job. He's 46, from Guatemala, and represents another of the four reasons for the increased use: convenience.
Mr. ORNELIO PEREZ (Landscaper): (Spanish spoken)
CONTRERAS: He says sometimes his family in Guatemala leaves him a text message, or he sends one to them. For them, it's easier to stay in contact across borders and time zones with texting or using cell phones.
Unidentified Man #1: You cool with that, right?
Unidentified Man #2: Mm-hmm.
Unidentified Man #1: You cool with what you've got?
CONTRERAS: Not too far from the suburban mall in a Washington, D.C., high school, we find a group that represents the fourth reason for increased usage: youth. Latinos and blacks skew much younger than whites, so many of them become young, early adopters. Senior Lawan Johnson says she uses a phone because of the cost and convenience.
Ms. LAWAN JOHNSON (High School Student): I decided I wanted a phone more than a laptop. Like, you have to worry about Wi-Fi and all this stuff, and you're not really always going to be able to take your laptop anywhere you go. So a phone is more convenient.
CONTRERAS: And while I'm interviewing Johnson, classmate Robert Charmer, who's sitting right next to her, gets a text message from her.
Who's texting you?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. ROBERT CHARMER (High School Student): She just texted me.
CONTRERAS: She did?
Mr. CHARMER: Yes.
(Soundbite of laughter)
CONTRERAS: She's sitting right next to you.
Mr. CHARMER: See, talking and texting is just that easy.
CONTRERAS: Just a few years ago, these mischievous teens may have been on the losing side of the so-called digital divide. But with their sophisticated uses of hand-held devices, blacks and Latinos may be looking across that gap from the other side.
Felix Contreras, NPR News.
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