Factors Affecting Access and Use of Information Technology
Four factors affecting information technology (IT) access that researchers consistently cite are education, English proficiency, income, and technology-affirming social networks (Warf, 2012; Ono & Zavodny, 2008). These factors disproportionately place immigrant populations at a disadvantage and may serve as indicators of low IT use and access (Warf, 2012; Ono & Zavodny, 2008).
Education has been found to be a significant predictor of IT access and use (Ono & Zavodny, 2008; Warf, 2012). From 1995 to 2010, Americans of all education levels experienced gains in Internet access (Warf, 2012). Despite this, large differences in rates of Internet use remained between college-educated users and those with less than a high school degree. By 2010, college-educated people almost universally were using the Internet while less than half (47%) of those without a high school diploma or GED were doing so (Warf, 2012).
Although the average education level of immigrants has risen since 1970, the gap between immigrants’ and natives’ average educational attainment has widened (Betts & Lofstrom, 2000). Around 48% of foreign-born Hispanics have less than 12 years of education, compared to 19% of Native Hispanics (Pew Hispanic Center, 2012).
English proficiency appears to be a strong factor in both access and use of IT and may be responsible for much of the difference in IT use between native and foreign-born populations (Ono & Zavodny, 2008). English is overwhelmingly the language of the Internet and e-commerce—likely a key factor in the link between English ability and Internet use (U.S. Department of Commerce, 2002). Over two-thirds (68%) of all Internet sites and more than 94% of (secure server) commerce web pages are in English (Pew Internet & American Life Project, 2001; Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, 2001). To give an idea of the scope of the barrier this presents for immigrants, half of the foreign born population in the U.S. speaks English less than “very well” (US Census Bureau, 2013).
In the Latino population as a whole, Spanish-dominant Latinos fall well below English-dominant Latinos for rates of Internet use, cellphone ownership, smartphone ownership, computer ownership, and social networking site use (Figure 1, Pew Hispanic Center, 2013). That being said, Spanish-dominant Latinos are making some significant gains. From 2009 to 2012, Spanish-dominant Latinos showed a sharper rise in Internet use than English-dominant or bilingual Latinos (Pew Research Center, 2013).
In addition to English ability, income may determine IT access and use for immigrants, in part due to high start-up costs and fees associated with IT use and ownership (Warf, 2012). Warf (2012) noted that the high cost of broadband is an often cited reason for not having broadband access at home and may account for differences in broadband access across income groups.
The cost prohibitive nature of IT ownership and Internet fees may be exacerbated by the income gap between foreign and native-born Latinos (Ono & Zavodny, 2008). As of 2013 the annual median income for foreign-born households was $48,860 compared to $53,733 for native-born households (US Census Bureau, 2013). Even so, differences in income have been shown to only partially account for the difference in computer ownership and Internet use (Fairlie et al., 2006).
While Internet fees may be prohibitive, recent findings from the Pew Hispanic Center (2011) indicate that mobile phones could help increase Internet access for Latino immigrants. Around 6% of Latinos who do not have home Internet access instead accessed the Internet via their cell phones (Pew Hispanic Center, 2011). However, smartphones, a less costly option than computers, may not narrow the digital divide as anticipated. Recent surveys of Latinos show a slightly larger divide between native and foreign-born Hispanics for smartphone than computer ownership (Figure 2; Pew Research Center, 2013). Further research on the potential for less costly technologies to narrow the digital divide is needed.
Segregation/Lack of Social Networks
Immigrants have been found to lack the social networks that support IT access and use (Ono & Zavodny, 2008). People who have friends and relatives who use computers and e-mail are more likely to do so themselves not only because their social groups can help them learn to use IT but also because IT can help them connect to their social groups (Goolsbee and Kenow, 2002). As a result, immigrant youths’ higher rates of IT use could affect IT use in their households. However more research is needed to adequately understand this dynamic. What is known is that in general, immigrants’ lower rates of technology use and access combined with the tendency of immigrant groups to maintain tight homogenous circles means that they may not be exposed to social networks that would enhance their ability and desire to acquire IT skills (Ono & Zavodny, 2008).
(Photo: “Bangalore Bike Guy on Phone” © 2011 by Victor Grigas, used under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)
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 Technology, Access & Use of Financial Services, Notario Fraud, and Driver's Licenses for the unauthorized.