Blended Learning

Many low-income families get on the Internet with smartphones or tablets. That matters. Here’s why

A new report examines how poor families with children use the Internet

Nolan Young, 3, front, looks at a smart phone while his brother Jameson, right, 4, looks at a smart tablet at their home, in Boston.

Nolan Young, 3, front, looks at a smart phone while his brother Jameson, right, 4, looks at a smart tablet at their home, in Boston.

Nine out of 10 low-income families report that they have some form of Internet access, but between a quarter and a third of them say they most often use smartphones and tablet computers for Internet access, according to a new report released Wednesday in Washington, D.C.

The new report provides a rare analysis of how poor families with children use the Internet, and as such could be useful to policymakers. The finding that up to one out of four low-income people use mobile devices to connect to the Internet was not entirely unexpected, but has important education implications. Children who said they only have access to the Internet via a mobile device were less likely to say they used digital resources for educational or creative purposes, the report found.

The report, “Opportunity for all? Technology and learning in lower-income families,” was to be released Wednesday morning at a forum that can be viewed live online. Hosted by New America Foundation, a nonprofit organization that studies and advocates on social issues, the forum is scheduled to include remarks from Tom Wheeler, the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission.

Related: Poor students often lack a home Internet connection. Is this FCC program a solution?

Victoria Rideout, president of VJR Consulting and a longtime researcher on children and media, and Vikki Katz, an associate professor at Rutgers University and a senior research scientist at the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop, co-authored the report. They polled 1,191 parents with children ages 6 to 13 who had incomes below the national median of $63,767 for families with at least one child under the age of 18.

The researchers also conducted in-person interviews with about 170 Spanish-speaking families in three states. Immigrant Hispanic families, in particular, tend to be less connected to the Internet than other Hispanic families of modest means, the researchers said.

“Not all access is created equal,” Rideout said. “It’s far more nuanced than that.”

The new report found that low-income families value access to the Internet, with an overwhelming majority agreeing that technology helps them learn and be exposed to new ideas. Three out of four parents did worry, however, that children might be exposed to inappropriate content online and that technology “detracts from time spent on other important activities.”

Programs intended to provide reduced-price Internet service to low-income families with children are doing a poor job of signing people up, the report found, confirming a finding previously supported mostly by anecdotal evidence.

Related: FCC votes to increase E-rate funding for school technology

“The programs are currently available, they are not serving the people they are designed to,” Katz said, adding, “We can do better than this.”

One such program, Comcast’s Internet Essentials, by independent accounts is said to be underutilized. The report confirms this. Only 5 percent of those polled said they had signed up for the program. Among those who had tried it, about a quarter said they were not satisfied with the service.

According to families who are the target audience of these programs, and community advocates who serve them, these lower-priced plans are difficult to obtain (users must not have an existing or past-due account) and have features (such as a setup for a plug-in device, rather than cordless connection via Wi-Fi) that make it unhelpful.

Comcast is required to offer the low-cost Internet Essentials plan due to an agreement the company made with the Federal Communications Commission about five years ago. The federal agency receives performance reports created by Comcast, which argues that the program provides a useful service to low-income communities.

This story was written by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our newsletter to get a weekly update on blended learning.

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Nichole Dobo

Nichole Dobo is a reporter and the blended learning fellow. Her work has been published in the Los Angeles Times, The Atlantic's online edition, Mind/Shift,… See Archive