Blog Post

Digital Divides in Social Network Sites: Kids Find a Way.

This post originally appears on my blog:

As we increasingly utilize social media to interact with others and learn, there are many individuals who return to questions of digital divides. Is there unequal access and participation in these new technologies based on certain indicators such as race, SES, or education? You can find some current thought on digital divides and social media by Henry Jenkins, Eszer Hargittai, and the HASTAC community.

While there is a lot of thought and discussion about digital divides and youth (under 18), there are very few studies that actually try to see whether young people have differential access to things like Facebook or MySpace. Hargittai's work considers college student populations, but I wanted to explore youth in particular.

I am excited to share some preliminary findings of my first dissertation paper (see end of post for a description of my overall dissertation) entitled, Digital Divides and Social Network Sites: Which Students Participate in Social Media? I'm also excited that the paper will appear next year in a special issue of the Journal of Educational Computing Research. Please look out for it! Nevertheless, academic life moves much slower than real life, so instead of waiting for next year, I thought I'd share some of the findings from the study.

The Study: I used a nationally-representative dataset from the Pew Internet & American Life Project. In 2007 they conducted a survey of teenagers, their writing habits, and their technology practices. I conducted logistic regression analysis to ask the question: Do digital divide indicators such as race, parent education, gender, age, and others predict whether teenagers use social network sites (SNS)? Put another way, is access to these sites unequal across demographic or social lines?

My findings were quite interesting from this nationally representative dataset:

  • African American/Black youth were 42.3% *more likely* to use SNS compared to their White peers.
  • Boys were 42.6% *less likely* to use social network sites compared to girls.
  • Having a college educated parent, or having a parent who is an Internet user, had *no significant influence* on whether a teenager had access to SNS.
  • Having broadband internet access at home did not have any significant relationship to whether a teen used SNS.
  • Having primary Internet access at school (but not at home) had *no significant relationship* to using SNS.
  • Having primary Internet access somewhere other than school or home had a *large* positive relationship to using SNS. Teens who primarily access the Internet outside of home or school had a 61.8% more likelihood of using social network sites.

What do these findings suggest? I'd say that (1) Kids find a way. We might be concerned that parents and schools are blocking access to social media, but youth find a way to participate. (2) Traditional digital divide indicators like education level or Internet access do not predict whether youth use social network sites. A minimal level of access seems sufficient for kids getting connected. Again, kids find a way to get connected.

I think the fact that Black youth were more connected, that youth with dial-up connections are just as connected, and that teenage girls are more connected than their male peers... are all quite intriguing trends. They fly opposite of earlier digital divide work, and suggest that while understanding divides is still important, youth of all walks of life are increasingly finding ways to connect with online social networks. This is promising!! And remember that this dataset was from 2007, access has increased so much in 2 years. For example, Facebook went from over 100 million to 350 million members (as of December 2009) in just one year. Social media is indeed becoming a daily part of teen life.

* This year, I am completing three studies for my dissertation (and thus three different papers). While the traditional dissertation usually consists of 5 chapters (intro, lit review, methods, findings, conclusion), my dissertation will be in a different format: intro, lit review, and three journal ready articles. All of my papers will consider some question about youth, social network sites, and learning.



Thanks for sharing your preliminary findings.  Did you look at the differences in the sites these teenagers were using? I wonder if you could confirm (or not) arguments made by danah boyd and others about the segregation of youth online along racial and ethnic lines based on the different SNSs they were using, (MySpace v. Facebook, etc.)  Your post reminded me of this story on NPR last week (reporting on a PEW study) that argued that there is a shrinking digital divide, primarily caused by mobile devices. It's more cost effective to go online with your cell phone (you don't have to buy a computer or pay an ISP), and easy to update facebook from your mobile device. I wonder how much of that Internet use reported in your study was through mobile phones. During the summer, I teach for a 6-week Bridge Transitions program for incoming first-year students from underperforming schools. Last summer, I asked the students at the beginning of the program whether any of them had a profile on an SNS. Only a few raised their hands. But two weeks later, I had to keep remininding them not to check facebook during our scheduled computer lab time.  Even though only a few of these students brought laptops with them, facebook had already become an integral part of the social lives of the students in the program, and they found time in their packed schedules to use the site. Like you said, they find a way.


Hi Amber,

Thanks for the comment! I'm on the same wavelength as you, I would like to see different participation patterns based on particular online communities (i.e. Facebook vs. MySpace vs. Twitter etc.).  The particular Pew dataset I used didn't have that data, but for my dissertation I collected some of this data in two urban school districts.  I hope to share those results in the next few months.

What's interesting is that in my work in urban classrooms, I'll notice that students (even poor, minority students) are typing away on their iPhones or mobile devices as I'm talking. The teachers tell me "we can't use social media because we don't have enough computers in our school", yet their students are accessing the internet right before their eyes. So yes, I think mobile access is breaking down some barriers, but lack of knowledge on the part of teachers (and fear of mobile devices and their legal ramifications in school by school leaders) are obstructing our use of them for learning in our classrooms.

I'm quite happy that youth find a way to get connected and participate in social media. That doesn't mean we shouldn't keep an eye on digital divides, but it does mean that we can begin to move the conversation away from "divides" and start focusing on learning.



Interesting preliminary results. I'm curious to know what you plan next. I would be very interested to see an experimental design at work. Would it be possible to assign randomly internet access to youth and measure SNS usage after? The advantage of the experimental design is that it could cast light on the casual mechanisms at play.

For example, the observational result that having an out of home connection is associated with a high SNS usage could be the result of multiple causal channels. Youth interested in SNS sites could be seeking out of home connections. Alternatively, out of home connections could provide non-SNS users the opportunity to engage in social networking. Similar arguments can be made about other pieces of your findings.

Great start!