Journal Issue: Children and Electronic Media Volume 18 Number 1 Spring 2008
Media in the Home
Although the United States continues to experience a “digital divide”—varying access to certain media, particularly computers and allied technologies, related to differences in socioeconomic status, race and ethnicity, and gender—most U.S. youth have access to most media most of the time. Television has penetrated 99 percent of all households with children, and more than 95 percent of those same households have video players, radios, and compact disc and tape audio players. Seventy-eight percent of households with young children (birth to six years) and 85 percent of those with eight- to eighteen-year-olds have personal computers, and 50 percent of households with younger children and 83 percent of those with older children have a video game console. Moreover, most children live with several of these media. The typical U.S. eight- to eighteen-year-old lives in a household equipped with three TV sets, three video players, three radios, three PDMPs (for example, an iPod or other MP3 device), two video game consoles, and a personal computer.6 As table 1 illustrates, saturation or near- saturation levels have been reached for all but the newest electronic media, and those are likely to follow much the same pattern. Indeed, the presence of youngsters in a household stimulates early adoption of the new electronic media. For example, the 73 percent computer penetration Nielsen found for all U.S households in 2007 is substantially below the 85 percent penetration found three years earlier in homes with eight- to eighteen -year-olds. Similarly, Nielsen now reports PDMPs in 27 percent of all households, but estimates that two-thirds of homes with twelve- to seventeen- year-olds already own or rent an MP3, iPod, or similar device.7
Personal media—that is, media that young people claim as their own—also affect access and exposure. The Kaiser data reveal that in 2004, 68 percent of U.S. eight- to eighteen-year-olds and 33 percent of children from birth to age six had a TV in their bedroom (19 percent of children under age one roomed with a TV set). Television is the most ubiquitous personal medium among children, but far from the only one. In 2003, 23 percent of children in the birth to six-year age range had a video player in their bedroom, 10 percent had a video game player, and 5 percent a personal computer. Not surprisingly, the proportions climb as children get older. For example, in excess of 80 percent of eight- to eighteen-year-olds report having their own radio and their own CD or tape player (92 percent claim some kind of music medium); 31 percent have a computer of their own, half have a video player, and 49 percent a video game console in their room. As new electronic media become more portable and more affordable, young people tend to number among the earlier adopters. In 2004, 61 percent of eight- to eighteen-year-olds claimed to own a portable CD or tape player, 55 percent a handheld video game, 18 percent a PDMP, 39 percent their own cell phone, and 13 percent some kind of handheld Internet device (Internet connectivity via cell phone was relatively rare at that time). Rapid diffusion of such media among youth is further attested to by estimates from 2005 that 45 percent of teens owned their own cell phone, up from 39 percent in 2004.8
Media Access in Schools
Not only do substantial numbers of young people carry most forms of portable digital media to school with them, most schools in the United States are now “wired.” Although we have found no data pertaining to electronic media in preschools and day care centers,9 virtually all public schools have for several decades owned TV sets (the average number of TV sets per public school exceeded twelve by 1994). Recent U.S. Department of Education data indicate that 100 percent of U.S. public schools had Internet connectivity by 2003, that 93 percent of public school instructional rooms had access by 2003, and that 95 percent of schools with Internet access were using broadband (high-speed) connections in that same year.10 Theoretically, then, it appears that most youngsters have relatively easy access to all but the very newest electronic media.
The Digital Divide
The term “digital divide” came into popular usage during the mid-1990s and originally referred to variations in access (in homes, schools, or other public locations) to personal computers and allied technologies, such as Internet connections, according to differences in socioeconomic status, race and ethnicity, gender, and geography (rural and urban location). More recently, as the gap in access to computers has narrowed somewhat, the term has also been applied both to broadband connectivity and to differences in technical support and in how members of different socioeconomic status or ethnic groups use the technology.
In spite of the rapid penetration of the newer electronic media into young people's households, a digital divide persists—the likelihood of household computer ownership still varies as a function of socioeconomic status and race and ethnicity. For example, the U.S. Census Bureau's Current Population Survey reports that the likelihood of three- to seventeen-year-olds living in homes with a personal computer is strongly related to household income. As figure 1 shows, fewer than 60 percent of homes with annual incomes under $20,000 have computers, as against more than 90 percent of homes with annual earnings of $60,000 or more. And although 93 percent of youngsters living in homes with an annual income of more than $75,000 have access to the Internet, only 29 percent of those from homes with earnings under $15,000 have Internet access.11 Similarly, the Kaiser data indicate that in-home computer availability varies by both parental education and race and ethnicity. Ninety-one percent of eight- to eighteen-year -olds whose parents completed college have access to an in-home personal computer as compared with 84 percent of those whose parents attended but did not finish college and 82 percent of those whose parents completed no more than high school. Ownership of allied computer technologies such as Internet connections and instant messaging programs follows the same pattern, with more access in homes where parents completed college and less in homes where parents completed high school. Figure 2 illustrates differences of in-home computer availability as a function of race and ethnicity. A higher share of white (90 percent) than either African American (78 percent) or Hispanic (80 percent) eight- to eighteen-year-olds live with personal computers, and the pattern is similar for Internet connections and instant messaging programs.12
Even though computers with Internet connectivity have become available in almost all public schools (with broadband connections not far behind), schools with the highest poverty concentrations have higher ratios of students to instructional computers (5:1 versus 4.1:1) and less access to computers outside regular school hours than do schools with the lowest poverty concentrations. Moreover, the likelihood of having a website that can make information available to parents and students is lower both in schools with high minority enrollments and in schools with the highest concentrations of poverty.13 Finally, children from higher-income households are more than twice as likely as those from the lowest-income households to use a home computer to complete school assignments (77 percent versus 29 percent) and are more than three times as likely to use a personal computer for word processing or desktop publishing.14
It seems, then, that although in terms of access to the technology the digital divide has narrowed substantially since the mid- 1990s (particularly access within public schools), in terms of the potential benefits of computers and allied technologies for education and economic opportunity, there remains cause for concern.