News literacy declines with socioeconomic status

Students from families with a lower socioeconomic status tend to be less confident and capable in navigating the Web to find credible information

Remember the digital divide? It was the next big problem circa 1995. Rich people had computers and Internet access, and poor people didn’t, condemning their communities to economic stagnation and worsening inequality. No less a conservative than Newt Gingrich proposed handing out laptops to welfare recipients to rectify the situation. 

To a considerable degree the problem was eventually solved, although not with free laptops. Rather, public libraries and other community centers installed computers with high-speed internet, as did public schools. In recent years cheaper devices than computers, such as smartphones and tablets, have provided more affordable personal access. According to the Pew Research Center, having at least some form of internet access is virtually universal among young Americans. 

But it turns out that the digital divide persists in at least one form: digital media literacy. Students from families with a lower socioeconomic status tend to be less confident and capable in navigating the Web to find credible information. According to news literacy experts and educators there are two main reasons: the persistent disparities in high-speed internet access at home, and the knowledge transmitted, or not, by parents. 

Eszter Hargittai, a professor of communications at Northwestern, has studied what she calls the “internet skills” of 18 and 19 year olds, which she measures using their familiarity with key internet terms and concepts such as “wiki” or a “bookmark. She has found a direct correlation between parental education level and a young adult’s level of skill online. Following the same cohort over time, she has also found it to be persistent. “It’s amazingly constant,” says Hargittai. “Everybody improves a little bit, but at equal rates so the gap remains the same.” 

One simple reason is that it turns out giving everyone access to a school computer lab does not mean their access to the internet is equal; Pew has found dramatic economic and educational disparities in home broadband access—and having high-speed access on a home computer leads to greater comfort and skill. A 2012 Pew report, said, “Looking at the groups with the lowest levels of home broadband access, we see adoption levels of 22% for adults who have not completed high school… and 41% for those who live in households making less than $30,000 per year. This is compared with 85% of college graduates… and 89% of those making at least $75,000 per year.”

danah boyd, a researcher at Microsoft and author of the new book It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens, observed the results of this inequality firsthand in doing her reporting. She says she found the convenience of a home computer allowed wealthier students to be more selective among sources of online information. “Students from more privileged households with a computer and Internet access at home would sit there and surf, and they would do one query and then another and simultaneously,” says boyd. “Lower-income students were always using their phone for looking things up. It’s not the best environment for comparing different sources. You can’t have multiple pages up at the same time. So I watched low-income youths take whatever they got first. It was very practical. They didn’t have the time, resources, or bandwidth to go through results one by one.”

Schoolteachers who work in schools with low-income populations say they find that home internet access—beyond the limited window of school computer lab access—also allows students to take the time to sift through sources and to be, therefore, more discerning. 

“Clearly having a computer at home makes a big difference,” says Fred Raphael, a history teacher at a public high school in Brownsville, Brooklyn. “Just as if any of us had only an hour or two to do our work every day, we would struggle and cheat and go to the easiest possible source. Kids with computers are more likely to research better, revise their work, and take more time with it because they have more time.”

Just taking the first result of a Google search is typical of the kinds of news literacy problems boyd and public school teachers say they have encountered, but far from the only one. Many students are unaware that Google is merely a search engine rather than a source of information itself, and that it does not vet the quality of the content on sites it searches. When clicking from Google or Facebook to a link, they may pay no attention to the name or URL of the site they are going to, thus not establishing relationships with trusted news brands. These problems are hardly unique to students from lower-income backgrounds, but they are more pronounced, in part for the reasons that go beyond mere physical access. 

Families and social networks in upper-income households pass on news literacy skills, adapted to the digital age, to their children. And less advantaged families often will not. “A parent of a wealthier kid may know where to go,” says Raphael. “Just as maybe before the digital era, parents who were higher-income would expose their kids to credible sources. Kids [in Brownsville] don’t see their parents reading The New York Times online. They don’t know where to go for high-quality news.” Parents from lower-income households may lack the time, the knowledge base, or the critical reading skills to teach their kids how to use the internet to do research or follow the news. 

“The internet is reinforcing already existing structural divides,” says boyd. “These technologies don’t eradicate existing problems; they amplify them. Many parents don’t have the literacy to interpret what’s true and what’s not. They don’t even necessarily have the critical apparatus to ask the right questions about what they see.”

So not only is providing accessible computer labs inadequate, Gingrich’s proposal of free laptops would be too. “It’s a mistaken assumption that access alone can solve this,” says boyd. 

Some public school teachers already incorporate basic digital literacy concepts into their classes. “In class, you have to teach what is a reliable source and what isn’t; what is an opinionated source and what’s fact,” says Raphael. “With younger students, you might want to give them a list of pre-approved websites to start with and show them what makes this a good website.”

Educating parents may be just as important. Thanks to social media, a whole community’s digital literacy is interrelated, as kids are exposed to news via their friends and families’ Facebook feeds. The Local Initiative Support Corporation, a national nonprofit that works in low-income communities, is developing a news literacy program for adults in Chicago. “Adults are not as literate as it relates to news, so they can’t transfer that to their children,” says Dionne Baux, a LISC program officer. “Individuals don’t know where to get their news, or they don’t see the bias in the news they’re receiving.” LISC is piloting free news literacy courses in community computer labs in three low-income and predominantly minority neighborhoods in Chicago. 

But everyone agrees that students need to get digital news literacy lessons in school. Beyond helping parent, LISC also helped the News Literacy Project bring its lessons into high-need Chicago public school classrooms. Now it has a well-established and growing presence in the city’s school system. 

But while the need may be clear, solutions are still in the works. “It’s very clear that schools are one of our tools of equalization, and it’s not working as such right now,” says boyd. “News literacy should be at the forefront of conversation [about educational inequality], but how we get there politically is difficult.” 

Funding for this coverage is provided by the Robert R. McCormick Foundation.

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Ben Adler is a staff writer for Grist and a contributor to CJR. Tags: