America's Digital Divide: 37% of Low-Income Households Do Not Have Regular Internet Access

I will be the first to admit that I tend to open up Facebook, YouTube, and damnyouautocorrect.com on my browser a little too often. I’m signed on to Gchat nearly 24/7 to conveniently distract myself from work, studying, and other more worthwhile endeavors. And I’m embarrassed to admit that yesterday afternoon, my co-workers and I spent a full 5 minutes watching a video of a girl making out with a tree at Miami’s Ultra Music Festival.

Millennials undoubtedly spend a massive amount of time on the internet doing a lot of useless things, and it has become a more pervasive distraction than any other form of media if our lives. In the U.S., 92% of millennials belong to an online social network, and 44% of millennials use Facebook during their workday. Unsurprisingly, we use the internet far more than any other generation, and the time our parents spent playing outside and interacting with peers, we have spent sitting inside, talking in chat rooms, and obsessing over the latest bit of gossip popping up on our newsfeeds. However, the defining technology of our generation has vital uses that far outweigh the negative repercussions of what some see as too many hours spent online. In fact, as the internet has become the focal point for access to information, education, and social connections for millennials, a lack of online access for many people is a far greater problem facing our generation.

Access to information via the internet is essential to our generation. Today, 59% percent of millennials consume most of their news via the internet. Wikipedia alone has made access to knowledge infinitely more accessible for us. Online courses offered by community colleges, state colleges, and universities allow students to take classes previously unavailable to them. Kahn Academy has opened the doors to free learning online, at any time, anywhere. Even elite colleges like Stanford are experimenting with offering free classes online; when they did, students around the world clamored for this opportunity (2/3 of the students are from outside the U.S.), showing that there is a widespread desire among our generation to further utilize the internet as a means of education; it is revolutionizing methods of learning and opening up new opportunities for our generation around the globe.

The other main tool of the internet for our generation is, of course, social connection. While critics see relationships borne from social media as shallower than “real” relationships, this is only one side of the social media story. While relationships that solely exist in chat rooms or on websites may not be akin to personal friendships, online communication also offers an opportunity to strengthen in-person relationships as well; talking online to friends I met in person contributed strongly to the development of many of my close friendships in college. Online connections allow us to stay in touch when we are extremely busy or away for long periods of time. Skype has allowed me to maintain friendships I formed during study abroad that I never would have had the opportunity to otherwise. Simply because the internet offers a different method of forming and maintaining relationships does not mean these relationships are less legitimate – they simply have different qualities.

Social media websites have also proven to reach far beyond personal relationships. Rather than existing as a passive form of socialization, these sites are actively playing a part in elections since 2008, news sharing, fundraising for causes, and even democratic revolutions around the world as we saw last year during the Arab Spring, disproving critics who dismiss social media sites as nothing but centers of gossip and egotistic self-promotion.

Because of the advantages of instant communication and access to education, the digital divide is becoming one of the primary challenges facing our generation globally both between rich and poor countries, and also between rich and poor communities within countries. In the U.S., 95% of upper income households use the internet regularly, while 37% of lower-income households do not. Funding cuts means that outside resources for internet use – mainly public libraries – have less money to spend providing computer and internet access for those who cannot afford it at home, and poorer schools won’t be equipped with good technology for their students.

Millennials growing up today without full access to online resources are facing a huge disadvantage in our generation, in regards to careers and job skills as well as the ability to enjoy full social participation in today’s digital world. Free and comprehensive internet access is an important component to empowering underserved communities and young people, and even if today’s youth end up spending half of that time watching Rebecca Black, it is still well worth it.