Who gets to participate in the conversation online? For a long time, the conversation has been primarily limited to rich, white families that had home computers. Even today, the racial disparity between who owns a computer with internet connection at home persists, with white families significantly more likely to own a computer and an internet connection than minority families.
However, the advent of the smartphone is quickly closing that gap. These multifunctional internet-connected devices tend to be more accessible for families than an internet connection — for example, families that can’t afford both a cell phone bill and an internet bill can pick the former and essentially get the latter through their plan. Minorities are most likely to report being almost entirely dependent on their phones for internet connection.
But even as minorities use their smartphones to bridge the gap between them and richer, white families, they are still hindered by websites and programs that aren’t well-suited to mobile browsing. Accessibility isn’t just a conversation about convenience, but also about who gets to use particular websites.
Smartphones are accessible devices
Desktop computers are expensive devices. A desktop can cost well over $500, plus that doesn’t include the $50 or more monthly owners will have to pay for an internet connection to make the device useable. Cell phones, particularly smartphones, can be similarly expensive when brand new, but an older model, a refurbished model or a model handed down can cost anything from nothing to just a couple hundred dollars while still having more or less every feature of modern smartphones, even if the specs are slightly out of date.
In addition, families that have to cut back on bills can easily cut back on the internet bill and keep their cellphone bill open without losing their connection to the internet. Since phones are multi-use devices, that keep you connected through the internet and through its cellular option, it makes more sense for the poorest families to rely on cell phones for their internet connection. More than 10 percent of black and hispanic Americans report relying almost entirely on their smartphone, while only four percent of white Americans report doing the same.
Smart devices provide crucial information
With internet-connected devices and signal boosters, minorities have access to greater information than they previously did. Unequal access to information has maintained decades of inequality, with lack of access to information serving as a source of disparate treatment and care. Whites with greater generational access to information and education can maintain higher standards of living through their education.
Through smartphones, black and Hispanic minorities report educating themselves through online resources available through their smartphones. This can mean anything from accessing online classes through their smartphone to looking up information for their assignments to researching the symptoms that they are experiencing online. Websites like Wikipedia and WikiHow, resources like Google Scholar and other accessible online websites provide opportunities for minorities to do independent research and educate themselves on topics they may not have been able to learn about through formal education systems.
Minorities even report researching and applying for jobs on smartphones, which indicates that smartphones can provide enough mobility to reduce the financial gap for minorities.
Improved mobile sites bridge the gap
Although using smartphones can help bridge the resource gap between whites and minorities in the United States, not all websites have been adapted to suit mobile browsing, and every website that continues to operate as a desktop-only website is a barrier between poor Americans and minorities and richer, white Americans. A 2016 study reported that only 30 percent of small businesses have mobile-friendly websites; that’s a significant statistical gap.
Corporations, government agencies and websites should make a concerted effort to make all their content mobile browser-friendly in order to bridge the gap. Websites that don’t display correctly on mobile and operate on programs like Flash (a technology most phones don't recognize) are leaving a demographic behind. In order to open up the conversation and address persistent inequality, there should be a concerted effort to make all websites accessible to mobile devices.