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Millennials Will Bridge the Digital Divide
Millennials have called it the great problem facing their generation: How to introduce the rest of the world to a technological culture so billions are not left behind? Digital natives want a networked planet — and they are mobilizing to make it happen.
Jeff Gulati, associate professor of Political Science at Bentley University, has researched the global digital divide. His work shows that more than half of countries had either no fixed-line broadband subscribers or they were less than 1 percent of the population in 2009. Access was concentrated in high-income countries and remained rare in the developing world and the world’s poorest countries.
“The millennials are very concerned about social responsibility,” says Gulati. “We may see that as more millennials move into leadership positions they’ll place positive pressure on government and organizations to use their resources to expand broadband access. I don’t think millennials could understand how people could survive without it.”
In the U.S., the push to draw citizens to the Internet is shared by a determined national government and massive telecommunications companies. As Gulati suggests, millennials here face a challenge that is infinitely smaller than the one looming in other countries across the world.
Here the digital divide is shrinking, according to a 2014 report released this month by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration. The number of households that used broadband at home in 2012 inched up to 72 percent from 69 percent in 2011. Twenty-eight percent of households still did not use broadband at home as of two years ago.
The remaining divide is largely based on race, age and geography. Seventy-six percent of white American households use the Internet, compared with 57 percent of African-American households, according to the report, which is based on data collected from the U.S. Census Bureau. Slightly more than half of Americans 65 and older use the Internet, compared with well over three-quarters of those under 65.
Internet use is lowest in the South, particularly in Mississippi, Alabama and Arkansas, it said. Rural areas certainly suffer a lack of high-speed Internet access. While about 88 percent of urban households in the United States have access to high-speed cable Internet service, only 40 percent of rural households do, according to the Federal Communications Commission and the Commerce Department.
Poverty is a major issue. For more than a quarter of non-users — 7 percent of American households — high costs or low income present significant barriers to going online. And members of some ethnic minorities were far more likely to cite expense as a reason for not using the Internet: 41 percent of Hispanic respondents and 37 percent of African-American respondents said so, compared with 22 percent of whites and 26 percent of Asian-America, said the report. Half of young householders age 15 to 24 cited expense.
The Obama administration has poured billions of dollars into expanding the reach of the Internet. Government interest is in the amount of fixed broadband connections rather than mobile. In a digital economy, people need broadband access to jobs, government services, health care and education. Students need early access to broadband so they can learn computer science and coding at a young age and compete for the workforce of the future, say politicians and activists.
There will be approximately 1.5 million STEM jobs — requiring a science, technology, engineering, or math-related degree — by 2020. These will be the second-fastest growing occupations, and are projected to grow far more quickly than the economy as a whole, says Fred Humphries, vice president of Microsoft.
“If we don’t address the opportunity divide and digital divide,” Humphries says, “young folks, particularly people of color, will be further behind, and the divide is going to be a greater gulf.”
The Student Net Alliance, a student-run digital rights organization, is rallying support to get all students access to broadband. “The Internet provides one of the purest forms of democracy today, allowing students to access a limitless supply of information, for relatively low cost and with great ease,” say organizers.
“When those valuable avenues for education and communication are threatened, the Student Net Alliance is ready to mobilize students worldwide to defend the Internet as a tool for everyone to use with equal opportunity.”
The Next Generation, an under-35 activist group within the Communication Workers of America, has helped launch the Speed Matters campaign, which aims to make high-speed Internet affordable and widely available to all Americans.
It is no surprise that millennials, often referred to as digital natives, believe Internet access is a right for all in the U.S. Now they are looking beyond our borders.
Less than one-third of young people around the world are digital natives, according to a study conducted by the Georgia Institute of Technology and the International Telecommunication Union. Only 30 percent of people ages 15 to 24 have spent at least five years actively using the Internet, the criterion used to define digital nativism, said the 2013 report.
In many developed countries, more than 90 percent of young people are considered digital natives, with South Korea leading the way at 99.6 percent. But many developing countries lag far behind — all the way down to the Pacific island of Timor-Leste, where a mere 0.6 percent of 15- to-24-year-olds are digital natives.
A digital divide between rich and poor is nothing new, but the new study identifies an interesting twist on the phenomenon. It shows that in the developed world, there is hardly any generational gap anymore between Internet users. Most people in wealthy countries are online — more than 84 percent of the total adult population, both young and old, in South Korea, for example.
Yet there is a very real generation gap in many developing countries. In countries like Burundi, Eritrea and Timor-Leste, young people are nearly three times more likely to be Internet users than the overall adult population. In many other African, Asian and Latin American countries, the divide between digital natives and the rest of the population is also far more significant than in the developed world, according to the report.
As Bentley’s Gulati points out, this is a situation that ambitious young digital natives intend to change. The poster boy of the generation, 30-year-old Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, is leading the charge. It is unacceptable that there are about 4.4 billion people on this planet who have never been online, according to a report based on research in collaboration with Facebook and written by the consulting firm McKinsey & Co.
Now Zuckerberg has put together a lab where a team of Facebook engineers will build flying drones, satellites, and infrared lasers capable of beaming Internet connections to people down here on Earth.
The project, Internet.org, was launched last year by Facebook and other tech companies.
“There have been moments in history where the invention of new technology has completely rewired the way our society lives and works.” Zuckerberg wrote in a Wall Street Journal July op-ed. “The printing press, radio, television, mobile phones and the Internet are among these.
“In the coming decades,” he added, “we will see the greatest revolution yet, as billions of people connect to the Internet for the first time.”
Online millennials everywhere are getting on board. At a Global Youth Summit in 2013, young people gathered in San José, Costa Rica, to shape the sustainable development agenda in the post-2015 era. Along with some 700 participants present, more than 3,000 young people around the world logged in virtually to contribute their ideas from 43 hubs or workshops in 25 different countries using a special crowd-sourcing platform and other social media channels.
Take a look at the Youth Declaration that calls for more measurable targets to monitor the digital empowerment of young people at national, regional and international levels.
“The spread of information amongst young people can directly foster empowerment and innovation on a global scale. The key to a new global development agenda is innovation. Old methods and systems are poorly suited to the transformed and interconnected communities we live in today,” said the declaration.
“We call on member states, civil society, and the private sector to foster innovation to build the future we want. A key barrier is a lack of universal, global access to information and communications technologies, platforms and devices and the underlying infrastructure to support them.”
Every generation intends to change the world. The millennials just might do it.
Meg Murphy is a freelance writer.
When Brenden Botelho ‘20 and Jonny Boains ‘18 took internships in the Mass. Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs, what was the biggest community problem to tackle? Adapting to climate change.