Are smartphones helping to bridge the digital divide?

Posted Oct 31, 2011 | New Media Project


By Rebecca Bowman Woods, guest blogger

My first epiphany about smartphone usage among my congregation’s youth happened last fall. The teens and pre-teens were drawing interpretations of Genesis 1 in colored chalk on the church sidewalk. One of them suggested taking pictures of the drawings. I offered to get my camera, but before I could finish my sentence, they all pulled out smartphones and began snapping photos.

Many of these youth come from economically disadvantaged families; I had wrongly assumed they did not own smartphones. But it makes sense, now that I think about it. Several ride city buses to school. Others walk there before dawn and home in the late afternoon. Like many households, their families no longer have a landline (home phone), so the smartphone is their lifeline to parents, grandparents, neighbors, and pastors.

But why a smartphone instead of a regular cell phone? Because they’re part of a growing number of people who (in their case, outside of school) rely mostly on smartphones to access the Internet.

According to a recent Pew Internet Project survey, 35 percent of American adults own smartphones, and one-fourth of smartphone users say their phone is the primary way of accessing the Internet. Smartphone usage is higher among African Americans and Latinos, and urban or suburban adults are twice as likely to own a smartphone as those in rural areas. Even in households with an annual income of $30,000 or less, smartphone ownership matches the national average.

While the Pew researchers only surveyed adults, it would be interesting to see the results among teen and pre-teen smartphone users. Perhaps, as The Wall Street Journal’s Lucy Hood noted in an Aug. 29 article, smartphones may be bridging the digital divide across racial and economic groups, helping to level the playing field.

Or maybe not. In a conversation with Verity Jones last week about this post, she pointed out that the growth of smartphone usage means more people can consume what’s on the web, but producing the content is another matter.

True, while it’s next to impossible to write a blog post or article on an iPhone, in many ways, smartphone users are shaping the norms for what we produce and upload. Because of smartphones, the definition of “content” is changing. Thanks to Twitter, we’ve learned to think in 140 character increments. And 24 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube every minute.

I could conclude with a dire warning like “if the church wants to reach the younger generation, we (adults) need to master all these things.” But frankly, the thought of constantly striving to keep pace makes me tired. Maybe a better strategy would be to entrust the gospel to our youth, to “write it on their hearts” every week, and empower them to carry the message forth to the digital frontier.

Rebecca Bowman Woods
Rebecca Bowman Woods is a Disciples of Christ pastor, freelance religion writer, and contributing editor to Banned Questions About the Bible (Chalice Press, 2011).

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