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UNH Professor Says the Digital Divide Persists in the U.S.

Eun-A Park

Professor Eun-A Park, an expert on smartphone use and technology, says that while many people in the world are more digitally connected than ever thanks to smartphones, a third of Americans still have no broadband access, and 62 million American adults do not use the Internet at all.

This “digital divide” continues to grow across socio-economic and age lines, even as more adults purchase smartphones and tablets. But not all people use smartphones alike. In her research, Park uses a term the “smartphone divide” to delineate the different levels of access people have to smartphones and the various ways they use them.

The “divide” is often dependent on economic status and demographics, she explains.

Lack of Internet access can mean an inability to apply for work, as most major corporations and many small companies require online job applications and, for children, a distinct disadvantage in the classroom. Most importantly, people need Internet access to be part of the national and global conversation, Park says.

“To participate fully and deeply in a democracy, you need the tools to express what you have to say to be able to get into the discussion,” she said. “That’s why the concept of universal access is so important.”

At the same time, she warns that people must pause to think about just how engaged they want to be in that global online conversation.  Her research shows that constant engagement in smartphone use and other technologies is fundamentally changing the way people interact with one another and the way they live.

Park, an assistant professor in the department of communication, film and media studies who has addressed these issues at conferences around the country, presented her findings on the smartphone and digital divide on campus last spring. She will speak again this fall at UNH, focusing on the positive and negative influence of smartphone technologies on people’s lives.

Park says we are becoming a world of people who look down into our gadgets instead of out at the natural world or into each other’s eyes. People are texting rather than having face-to-face conversations, and that is having a profound effect on people of all ages and backgrounds, particularly younger generations.

“The big debate is ‘do smartphones bring humans closer together or farther apart?’" she asked. “For all our connectedness, are we growing estranged from each other? People are relating to one another – but not deeply – and they text often to avoid conversation.” She points to a study by Sherry Turkle, an MIT professor, who says that using smartphones causes people to exist “alone together.”

Park says studies show – and her own experience and that of her colleagues at other universities bears out – that smartphone use is changing the way students act in the classroom. “The United States always was known as the place where students were very active in the classroom,” she said. "They wanted their voices to be heard. Now we have what my colleagues and I call 'the weird silence' You ask a question, and you know students know the material, but they do not speak.” The number of these moments is increasing, she says.

Park says that while the Internet is often called the entry point to a global world that promotes a healthy exchange of new ideas, many people go to sites that are connected to ideologies they support, featuring ideas they are already familiar with. She says even Twitter – with millions of users – is dominated by about 20,000 key users, most of whom are celebrities, sports figures and members of the media. The majority of daily tweets are retweets of what those people have to say. “It isn’t the free market exchange of ideas people think it is,” she said.

Still, Park believes it is important that all people have access to the Internet. The promises made back in the 1990s – that everyone would be on the information superhighway and that students in urban centers and rural outposts would have equal access – have not borne out. While just about every school in the nation is linked to the Internet, the connection is often very slow in certain parts of the country, and computers often are obsolete.

The U.S. ranks 16th in the world in digital access and digital literacy, while South Korea, Norway, Finland and Japan lead the way, Park says. One area where the nation is making up ground is in the creation of public computing centers at libraries, community colleges, senior centers and stand-alone computer centers where members of the public can access computers and also take courses in computer literacy.

“It is,” said Park, “a fascinating field to study.”

This story, by Communications and Public Affairs Writer/Editor Jackie Hennessey, originally appeared in UNH Today on September 23, 2013.