Teenagers in lower-income households have fewer desktop, laptop and tablet computers to use at home than their higher-income peers, according to a new study. And those disparities may influence more than how teenagers socialize, entertain themselves and apply for college or jobs.
At a time when school districts across the United States are introducing digital learning tools for the classroom and many teachers give online homework assignments, new research suggests that the digital divide among teenagers may be taking a disproportionate toll on their homework as well.
Only one-fourth of teenagers in households with less than $35,000 in annual income said they had their own laptops compared with 62 percent in households with annual incomes of $100,000 or more, according to the report, to be published on Tuesday by Common Sense Media, a nonprofit children’s advocacy and media ratings group based in San Francisco.
One-fifth of teenagers in lower-income households reported that they never used computers for their homework — or used them less than once a month. And one-tenth of lower-income teenagers said they had only dial-up web access, an often slow and erratic Internet connection, at home. None of the higher-income youths said they had only dial-up access, according to the report.
Vicky Rideout, an independent researcher and consultant who wrote the Common Sense Media report, said the disparities in teenagers’ technology access amounted to “digital inequality.”
In households without regular computer or Internet access, she added, some teenagers resort to doing their homework on smartphones.
“There’s a really big difference between trying to type an essay for school — or do research on the Internet — on a smartphone or using a computer,” Ms. Rideout, the director of VJR Consulting, a research and policy firm that works with nonprofit groups, said in a phone interview. “We need to make sure that technology does not exacerbate the disparities between the haves and the have-nots, instead of ameliorating them.”
The study comes as regulators at the Federal Communications Commission are exploring the idea of subsidizing broadband access for low-income households — in part to address the digital homework gap faced by students who lack home Internet access.
Although previous research studies, including work by Ms. Rideout, have reported significant differences in media use by children in different socioeconomic and demographic groups, the Common Sense Media study provides an unusually comprehensive and detailed overview of digital technology use in an increasingly smartphone-reliant society.
The survey asked a nationally representative sample of more than 2,600 8- to 18-year-olds in the United States to report how much time they spent — and how much they enjoyed — watching TV and videos, playing games on different devices, reading, listening to music and using social media.
Teenagers spent an average of about six and a half hours on any given day exposed to screen media, including television, computers, tablets and smartphones, according to the study. And tweens, which the study defined as children 8 to 12, typically spent about four and a half hours a day on screen media, the report said.
(The survey counted each activity separately. So if a teenager was multitasking by, say, watching videos on a tablet for an hour and simultaneously using social media on a smartphone, the study counted those activities as two hours of total media exposure).
The study found some overarching themes. Teens and tweens, for instance, generally reported spending much more time watching television than they did on social media.
The study also analyzed the differences in children’s media use based on entertainment prototypes — such as mobile gamers, social networkers and heavy consumers of television and music — and by race, gender, household income and parents’ level of education.
The stark differences in daily activities among teenage and tween subgroups are likely to spur further research into the implications of such divergent media access and use.
“The reason that we need to be concerned about disparities here is that technology and media are now part and parcel of growing up in America,” said Ellen Wartella, the director of the Center on Media and Human Development at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. A professor of communication, she has conducted research on children, media and race.
“When there are disparities, even if it’s a question of how smart your phone is, teens and tweens may not have access to what they need — not just for school, but for other parts of their lives as well,” Dr. Wartella said. “They aren’t able to participate in the way that more wealthy teens and tweens are able to.”
The study also found that, while black teenagers and teenagers in lower-income households had fewer computers at home, those who did have access to smartphones and tablets typically spent more time using them each day than their white or higher-income peers.
Black teenagers spent a daily average of eight hours and 26 minutes on screens for entertainment purposes, according to the report. That was two hours and eight minutes more than their white peers. Within that screen time, black teenagers spent most of their time — an average of about four hours daily — on smartphones, compared with about three hours for Hispanic teenagers and two hours for white teenagers.
And teenagers in lower-income households typically spent about eight hours on daily screen media use compared with less than six hours for those from higher-income families, the report said.
Dr. Wartella said the reported differences in media use among the various teenage and tween subgroups raised new questions for researchers. “What specific content are these user groups exposed to?” she said. “What impact does it have on their social relationships, their attitudes and their knowledge?”
She concluded: “We don’t know enough about that.”