Professor finds new digital divide threatening well-being of low-income teens

  • Candice Odgers Photo

Research shows that while online access is now nearly equal, experiences are not

In one sense, the digital divide between teenagers from different socio-economic backgrounds is narrowing: All increasingly have access to technologies such as smartphones and computers. But a new digital divide appears to be emerging over the types of experiences these teens have online, according to a School of Social Ecology professor.

Candice Odgers, professor of psychology and social behavior, analyzed data from various existing studies and published her findings in an online commentary for the journal Nature.

In a 2015 survey – conducted as part of the Research on Adaptive Interests, Skills & Environments study by Odgers and colleagues – 10- to 15-year-olds reported high levels of regular internet access regardless of family income: 92 percent for those from economically disadvantaged homes and 97 percent for their more affluent peers. The gap in smartphone ownership is even smaller, at 65 percent and 69 percent, respectively.

“The digital divide is now arising from the different types of online experiences young people are having,” Odgers said. “The evidence so far suggests that smartphones may serve as mirrors reflecting problems teens already have. Those from low-income families said that social media experiences more frequently spilled over into real life, causing more offline fights and problems at school.”

Other studies reviewed by Odgers indicated the need for additional support from parents, schools or other community organizations for adolescents from economically disadvantaged households, who are more likely to be bullied, solicited and victimized in cyberspace. They also usually have less parental mediation, guidance and supervision of their online activities.

“The majority of young people appear to be doing well in the digital age, and many are thriving with the new opportunities that electronic media provides. But those who are already struggling offline need our help online too,” Odgers said. “Strategies that encourage parental involvement – as well as partnerships between local governments, technology companies and educational institutions – are key to ensuring that all young people, including the most vulnerable, have positive online experiences.”

The RAISE study received funding from Duke University’s Center for the Study of Adolescent Risk & Resilience, a National Institute on Drug Abuse Core Center of Excellence (P30DA023026). Further support was provided by the Jacobs Foundation and the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research.

Read the article.