Access & Use of Technology

Disparities in Access and Use of Information Technology


Access to and use of information technology (IT) are associated with social and economic benefits such as academic and workplace success as well as with civic engagement (Ono & Zavodny, 2008). Due to the increasing integration of technology into daily life and the role technology plays in facilitating social communication, those with access and the ability to effectively use IT have higher quality of life than those without (Warf, 2012). The consequence is that disparities in access and use of technology tend to mirror socioeconomic disparities and these disparities may further reduce opportunities for immigrants to adopt technological skills (Ono & Zavodny, 2008). For this reason identifying differences in IT access and use is an important step in efforts to alleviate such disparities.

Studies of digital disparities in the late 1990s to early 2000s focused on differences in computer ownership and Internet connectivity (known as the digital divide). Recent studies have focused more on the differences in usage of IT (known as digital inequality). This shift in focus is largely the result of new, more affordable technology resulting in more widespread access to the Internet and increased computer ownership (Ono & Zavodny, 2008).

This page contains information primarily on IT access and use for the Hispanic/Latino population, focusing on disparities between the foreign- and native-born. Studies of IT access for immigrants as a whole are limited, and despite the sizable Asian and Pacific Islander (API) immigrant population (25.1% of the foreign-born population), research on this group is lacking (U.S. Census Bureau, 2013). When data for the API population is collected, it is often aggregated, using a single set of numbers to reflect the diverse experiences of immigrants from many countries.

Disparities for Latino immigrants

Sources: CLOSING THE DIGITAL DIVIDE: LATINOS AND TECHNOLOGY ADOPTION, PEW RESEARCH CENTER, 2013; The Latino Digital Divide: The Native Born versus the Foreign Born, Pew Research Center, 2010

Computers. The gap in computer ownership rates between foreign-born and native-born Latinos has narrowed by a noticeable margin since 2003. In 2003, 70% of native-born Latinos owned a computer while only 40% of foreign-born Latinos owned one (Fairlie et al., 2006). By 2012, native-born Latinos’ ownership increased to 83% while foreign-born ownership rates jumped to 64%, indicating that the gap between native and foreign-born Latinos is narrowing ( Figure 1; Pew Hispanic Center, 2013). While this finding is encouraging it is still worth noting that foreign-born Latinos make up 73% of the Latino population who do not own computers while U.S. born Latinos make up 27% of the Latino population who do not own computers, reaffirming that disparities remain between immigrant and U.S.-born Latinos (Pew Hispanic Center, 2013).

Internet. Along with computer ownership, Internet access and use among Latino immigrants has increased markedly in the last decade, but with sizable differences from the native-born remaining. Studies show that nationally, foreign-born Latinos have lower levels of access to broadband than native born Latinos (Pew Hispanic Center 2010). For the year 2010, one survey reported a 25 percentage-point difference in home broadband access between native-born and foreign-born Latinos (60% vs. 35% having access, respectively) and a 27 percentage point difference in access to home Internet (71% vs. 45%) (Figure 1; Pew Hispanic Center, 2010).

In California, the gap in home broadband access between non-citizens and citizens narrowed between 2008 and 2013 (Public Policy Institute of California [PPIC], 2013). In 2008, 23% of foreign-born Latinos reported home broadband access while 46% of naturalized and 67% of native-born Latinos reported home broadband access (PPIC, 2013). Between 2010 and 2011 non-citizen broadband access rates grew by an especially large margin—38.8% compared with 6% for naturalized and 1% for native-born citizens—hinting that non-citizens may be catching up to other groups in rates of access (PPIC, 2013). Since then, access rates have stabilized and home broadband access rates are increasing at the same pace (PPIC, 2013). The most recent data, from 2013, indicates that 43% of foreign-born Latinos have home access to broadband compared with 62% for naturalized and 79% for native-born Latinos (Figure 2; PPIC, 2013).

Source: Just the Facts: California’s Digital Divide, PPIC, 2013

Non-citizen Latinos’ Internet use rates have doubled since 2008. In 2008, 36% of non-citizen Latinos used the Internet, compared to 62% of naturalized and 81% of native-born Latinos (PPIC, 2013). By 2013, 72% of non-citizen Latinos used the Internet compared to 92% of native-born and 82% of naturalized Latinos (PPIC, 2013)

Pew Hispanic Center also associates nativity with mobile Internet use. Around 81% of native-born Hispanic Internet users and 70% of foreign-born Hispanic Internet users log on to the Internet using a mobile phone (Pew Hispanic Center, 2013).

Mobile Phones. Disparities between native and foreign-born Latino cell phone ownership appear to be smaller than those in computer ownership. The difference in cell phone ownership between the native and foreign-born has fallen from 16 to 11 percentage points from 2011 to 2013 (Pew Hispanic Center, 2013). The relatively low cost of mobile phones compared to computers may be a reason for lower disparities in mobile phone ownership. This supports the hypothesis that cost may be a factor in IT access (Pew Hispanic Center, 2013). It also follows that despite increasing cell phone ownership there is still a 21 percentage point difference between native-born and foreign-born Latinos when it comes to more expensive smartphone ownership (61% and 40% owning smartphones, respectively) (Pew Hispanic Center, 2013).

Social Media and Networking. According to a study of U.S. college students, certain social media activities are associated with increases in student engagement and grade point averages (Junco, 2013). Less use of social media, then, may have adverse consequences for immigrant communities. In 2012 a little over two-thirds (68%) of Latino Internet users said they used Facebook, Twitter, or other social networking sites, but despite the large rate of use there are still differences between native and foreign-born Latino populations (Pew Hispanic Center, 2013). Higher proportions of online native-born Latinos than online foreign-born Latinos used social networking sites—73% versus 63% in 2012—and foreign-born Latinos made up the majority (57%) of Latino Internet users who did not use social media in that same year (Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, 2012a; Pew Hispanic Center, 2013).

Disparities for Asians and Pacific Islanders

API immigrants tend to use IT at higher rates than native born whites (Warf, 2012). However, while Asian immigrants have higher rates of computer and home Internet access than the native-born population, there are still large differences depending on country of origin (Fairlie et al., 2006). Disaggregated research on this group’s access to IT is limited and more data is needed to get a nuanced picture of which API immigrant groups are using IT and what types are preferred.

Disparities by Other Characteristics

Income Group and Profession. There is evidence that differences in income are linked to differences in IT use in the general population (Pew Research Center, 2013). Nearly 100% of people making over $75,000 annually use the Internet compared to 73% of the population making under $30,000 annually (Pew Research Center, 2013). Similarly 89% of those with an income higher than $75,000 have broadband access, compared with 47% of those with an income of $30,000 or less (Pew Research Center, 2013). Finally 96% of those making over $75,000 own a computer compared with 59% of those making $30,000 or less (Pew Hispanic Center, 2013). There are few studies that look at this in immigrant populations. Studies of immigrant workers suggest, however, that these disparities may be seen in foreign-born and native-born populations alike. Immigrants in professional sectors have high rates of proficiency with IT, while low-wage immigrant workers have less access to IT than any other demographic group (McCabe, 2012; Costanza-Chock, 2011).

Age. The proliferation of IT has divided the population along generational lines between those who were raised using technology and those who came to technology later in life (Wang, Myers, & Sundaram, 2013). While there is a lack of literature documenting the effects of this intergenerational divide on immigrant access and use of technology, it is possible that older foreign-born populations may find IT difficult to master or may not appreciate the benefits of the Internet and be uncomfortable with IT adoption (Warf, 2012). One report documented a sizable gap between older and younger Latinos (of any immigrant status) who use social media sites (Pew Hispanic Center, 2013). In 2012, 84% of all Latinos ages 18 to 29 used social media sites, whereas only 27% of Latinos 65 and over did (Pew Hispanic Center, 2013).

Another survey shows differences in text messaging for foreign-born Latinos by age. In 2009, 56% of Latino young adults ages 16 to 25 used text messaging compared with 39% of adults aged 25 and over (Pew Hispanic Center, 2010).

Although younger users may have an inherent advantage in adopting or accessing new IT, differences related to immigrant status remain in the youth population (ages 16 to 25). According to a recent report by the Pew Hispanic Center (2010b), there is a 34 percentage-point difference in Internet use between native-born and foreign-born Latino youth (85% vs. 51%). This divide is also observed in the use of mobile technologies: while two-thirds (65%) of native-born Latino youth communicate with friends over text, only one-fourth (26%) of foreign-born Latino youth do so.

About this project

The Tomás Rivera Policy Institute, a university research center with the mission to address the challenges and opportunities of demographic diversity in the 21st century global city, has produced these featured digital publications using the USC Media Curator, an online publishing platform designed to bring together innovative research from across the University of Southern California and beyond. This project curates research relevant for immigrant service providers on the topics of Access & Use of TechnologyAccess & Use of Financial ServicesNotario Fraud, and Driver's Licenses for the unauthorized.


THE TEAM: Carl Hayden Community High School Falcon Robotics Club

“Spare Parts” Documents the Struggles of Undocumented Immigrants in Technology

In 2004, four undocumented high school students Cristian Arcega, Lorenzo Santillan, Luis Aranda, and Oscar Vazquez, from Phoenix, Arizona competed in a naval robotics competition sponsored by NASA...more.