There’s a divide for teens without smartphones, and we have to fix it

When we talk about Snapchat, or Instagram a photo, or click on what’s trending on Facebook, we don’t realize that we’re participating in a specific demographic. Being a part of social media, and having a smart phone in general, is a luxury that we don’t often consider. A new study found that there is a significant divide between teens with phone and teens without phones, as well as the type of phone they’re using. Teens who don’t have the money to afford the technology that gives them access to things like Instagram and Snapchat are missing out not just on the vocabulary of those things, but also the Internet culture that ends up shaping much of teen life.

If we take a look at the numbers, we see that 88% of teens have their own cell phones, and 73% of those phones are smartphones. While those who fall within those percentages have access to the social media we all love to talk about, the remaining teens don’t. How does this affect their adolescence? Does this “digital divide” make it harder for them to connect to their peers?

A team at the University of California decided to investigate this further by conducting research on these typically low-income teens who lack cell phones or smartphones. In one study, they set up a program around photo-sharing apps, but none of the teens who participated had an Instagram account, and only a few had ever even shared a photo online.

In other cases, they talked to low-income teens about how they used the phones they did have, and it turns out that it’s primarily for texting their family and friends. Only one teen used Snapchat, and that made him a bit of a lone wolf on social media. Even if a teen in this demographic does participate in some of these apps, his or her use is limited because they aren’t surrounded by a common community. At a certain point, it just feels like talking to yourself.

All in all, this huge shift towards apps and the Internet may dominate our media, but it leaves behind those teens who can’t afford to keep up. With the Internet advancing at such a rapid rate, it’s no surprise that those who can’t participate will miss out on the things that make being a teen, well, a teen.

Not all hope is lost. This realization has led to a push for there to be more community access to these programs. Schools and libraries can provide a neutral gathering space for all teens to use the Internet, but it’s up to us to figure out how to bridge this more mobile divide so everybody can see the newest cat video, or the Instagrams I take of my dog (trust me, she’s very cute, so this is important).

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