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Smartphones: Bridging the Digital Divide, Except When They Suck

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By India Kushner on June 6, 2012


A growing trend shows that low-income Americans have frequently been using smartphones as their primary means of reaching the Internet, according to surveys by the Pew Research Center.

The Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association’s website notes that the low cost and accessibility in low-income areas is one way these devices can help balance the digital equity. Smartphones help people gain access to the Internet when they have no other means of doing so.

For Ashley Street, 23, a single mother from Philadelphia, her smartphone helped her find a shelter when she was homeless and apply for a new job when she was laid off from her job at McDonald’s.

This technology has become especially important for students who can’t afford laptops. Isiah Marshall, a junior at Crenshaw High School in Los Angeles, says that his smartphone is the only way he can do his homework, since he doesn’t have a computer or Internet at home. While his school has computers, they’re usually occupied or broken. In schools with limited computers available, phones have been installed with educational programs, allowing students to write essays or study math.

But, the digital aid is not without its disadvantages. Students who try to write papers on their smartphones find it tedious, leaving their fingers cramped. Many webpages are not compatible with smartphones and are therefore unreadable. This often makes registering for classes, finding scholarships and applying for jobs impossible.

According to Huffington Post, “the experience was like window shopping, without being able to enter the store and buy the merchandise.” One student, Erick Huerta, who had been using a smartphone but recently saved up enough money to buy a laptop explained “you can see the information that you want, but you can’t grasp it fully until you’re on a desktop.”

Another problem is the likelihood of going over your data plan. “If your only access to the Internet is through a phone, you run a much greater risk of having an extra cell phone bill every month,” says Amalia Deloney, an associate director at the Center for Media Justice, a nonprofit that works on media policy in low-income and minority communities.

Street recalls that she attempted to use her phone to fill out a student aid form for culinary school but found it extremely difficult. As she finished the application, the wireless connected failed and she lost all of her information.

Smartphones may be closing the educational gap, but maybe they should be an aid, not a solution?

India Kushner is a recent graduate from Goucher College, where she did everything from making quesadillas at the local snack bar to delivering mail in a golf cart at the school post office, and in between that, writing for her school newspaper, The Quindecim. Though leaving the golf cart/barista work behind was hard, she’s excited to join HyperVocal.

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