money talks

Teens without smartphones encounter a new digital divide

With low-income kids unable to participate in the social media conversations of their wealthier peers, a new form of digital inequity is emerging.

In this digital age, we have assumed that smartphones and apps are the new normal for youth.

A recently released Pew Research Center report on teens and technology further corroborates this belief by showing that 88% of US teens have access to a mobile phone. Of these, 73% have smartphones and 15% only a basic cell phone.

But it’s worth pausing to consider what online participation looks like for the 15% of teens with basic cell phones or the 12% who don’t have access to any form of mobile phone and what kind of a new “digital divide” might be emerging.

In other words, low-income teens are unable to participate in the social media conversations of their wealthier peers.

Our team at the University of California, Irvine, has been conducting research and developing programs in coding and digital media for these less-connected youth. The nationally representative sample in the Pew data provides context for these populations of urban teens who we work with day-to-day in Southern California.

Teens use of social media

Last summer, we helped organise and conduct research on a digital storytelling course for teens in South Los Angeles. The 30 teens who participated all came from low-income households, were evenly split in gender and were predominantly Latino, with some black and Asian participants.

We designed one program around photo-sharing apps and mobile phone cameras, as we believed that was what teens would be most comfortable doing. It turned out, however, that none of them had an Instagram account and few had ever shared a photo online.

We were struck by the contrast between the subjects of our study and those in the Pew study.

More recently, we conducted interviews with 14 teens in the same demographic, who were participating in a workshop using the Scratch programming platform, a creative online learning tool in which young people can develop and share their stories, animations and games.

When we asked the teens participating in this program about their mobile and social media use, all of them said they texted to keep in touch with friends and family.

Only half had a smartphone.

None of them used the photo-sharing tool Instagram. Only one used Snapchat, another photo messaging tool. They did have Facebook accounts, but none described themselves as active on the site. In a group interview, one of the boys called out the one boy who did use Snapchat. “We are all ghosts on social media except you. You have Snapchat.”

What’s notable is that these low-income teens do not use the social media in ways their wealthier peers do. One of our interviewees notes that she doesn’t use social media at all. “When I’m on my phone, I’m either reading or texting,” she said.

Peer groups will gravitate to the modes of communication that are most widely shared.

Income differences and smartphones

In low-income communities, fewer teens have smartphones, so texting is the most common mode of communication. It’s no fun being on Instagram and Snapchat if your friends are not.

Indeed, we’ve seen proclamations in the media about teenagers’ flight from Facebook and the growing hegemony of smartphone apps like Instagram and Snapchat.

In other words, the shift to smartphones means low-income teens are shut out of the dominant communications media of their generation.

These observations are backed by the Pew survey data. Teens in wealthier households are more likely to have smartphones and to prefer Snapchat and Instagram.

Compared to those in households earning less than US$30,000 annually, twice as many teens in households earning more than $75,000 annually say they use Snapchat as their most visited website.

For Instagram, the differences are less pronounced but the survey shows a slight tendency for teens in higher income brackets to prefer the app. That’s not surprising given the high cost of mobile Internet plans. Contrast that with Facebook use, which is higher among lower income teens.

While 51% of teens  in households earning less than $30,000 use Facebook often, only 31% of the teens in the wealthiest households, earning more than $100,000, do so.

Facebook can be accessed through a shared family PC or a public library computer, making it a much more accessible platform than those that rely on smartphone connectivity for an app.

An area of concern

Teens’ access to Snapchat and Instagram may not seem like something we should be terribly concerned about, but it is an indicator of deeper and troubling forms of digital inequity.

Social digital and networked media use is where young people gain everyday fluency and comfort with the technology and social norms of our times.

Whether it is managing a LinkedIn network or learning to code, young people who lack digital fluency and full access will always be a step behind their more connected peers.

In many ways, this emerging smartphone divide is more troubling than the digital divide we faced back in the 1990s. The digital divide at that time described the gap between those who had access to desktop computers and the Internet and those who did not.

Public concern led to policies and community efforts to bridge the divide through public infrastructures. Schools and libraries emerged as important access points for children and youth who did not have access at home.

Today’s smartphone divide is potentially much more difficult to bridge as it goes hand and glove with expensive consumer technologies and private infrastructure.

We need to address this new divide head-on before it becomes entrenched in the experiences of this rising generation.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.


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Removing the layers of complexity that weigh down mental health in rural India

Patients in rural areas of the country face several obstacles to get to treatment.

Two individuals, with sombre faces, are immersed in conversation in a sunlit classroom. This image is the theme across WHO’s 2017 campaign ‘Depression: let’s talk’ that aims to encourage people suffering from depression or anxiety to seek help and get assistance. The fact that depression is the theme of World Health Day 2017 indicates the growing global awareness of mental health. This intensification of the discourse on mental health unfortunately coincides with the global rise in mental illness. According to the latest estimates from WHO, more than 300 million people across the globe are suffering from depression, an increase of 18% between 2005 and 2015.

In India, the National Mental Health Survey of India, 2015-16, conducted by the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (NIMHANS) revealed the prevalence of mental disorders in 13.7% of the surveyed population. The survey also highlighted that common mental disorders including depression, anxiety disorders and substance use disorders affect nearly 10% of the population, with 1 in 20 people in India suffering from depression. Perhaps the most crucial finding from this survey is the disclosure of a huge treatment gap that remains very high in our country and even worse in rural areas.

According to the National Mental Health Programme, basic psychiatric care is mandated to be provided in every primary health centre – the state run rural healthcare clinics that are the most basic units of India’s public health system. The government provides basic training for all primary health centre doctors, and pays for psychiatric medication to be stocked and available to patients. Despite this mandate, the implementation of mental health services in rural parts of the country continues to be riddled with difficulties:

Attitudinal barriers

In some rural parts of the country, a heavy social stigma exists against mental illness – this has been documented in many studies including the NIMHANS study mentioned earlier. Mental illness is considered to be the “possession of an evil spirit in an individual”. To rid the individual of this evil spirit, patients or family members rely on traditional healers or religious practitioners. Lack of awareness on mental disorders has led to further strengthening of this stigma. Most families refuse to acknowledge the presence of a mental disorder to save themselves from the discrimination in the community.

Lack of healthcare services

The average national deficit of trained psychiatrists in India is estimated to be 77% (0.2 psychiatrists per 1,00,000 population) – this shows the scale of the problem across rural and urban India. The absence of mental healthcare infrastructure compounds the public health problem as many individuals living with mental disorders remain untreated.

Economic burden

The scarcity of healthcare services also means that poor families have to travel great distances to get good mental healthcare. They are often unable to afford the cost of transportation to medical centres that provide treatment.

After focussed efforts towards awareness building on mental health in India, The Live Love Laugh Foundation (TLLLF), founded by Deepika Padukone, is steering its cause towards understanding mental health of rural India. TLLLF has joined forces with The Association of People with Disability (APD), a non-governmental organisation working in the field of disability for the last 57 years to work towards ensuring quality treatment for the rural population living with mental disorders.

APD’s intervention strategy starts with surveys to identify individuals suffering from mental illnesses. The identified individuals and families are then directed to the local Primary Healthcare Centres. In the background, APD capacity building programs work simultaneously to create awareness about mental illnesses amongst community workers (ASHA workers, Village Rehabilitation Workers and General Physicians) in the area. The whole complex process involves creating the social acceptance of mental health conditions and motivating them to approach healthcare specialists.

Participants of the program.
Participants of the program.

When mental health patients are finally free of social barriers and seeking help, APD also mobilises its network to make treatments accessible and affordable. The organisation coordinates psychiatrists’ visits to camps and local healthcare centres and ensures that the necessary medicines are well stocked and free medicines are available to the patients.

We spent a lot of money for treatment and travel. We visited Shivamogha Manasa and Dharwad Hospital for getting treatment. We were not able to continue the treatment for long as we are poor. We suffered economic burden because of the long- distance travel required for the treatment. Now we are getting quality psychiatric service near our village. We are getting free medication in taluk and Primary Healthcare Centres resulting in less economic stress.

— A parent's experience at an APD treatment camp.

In the two years TLLLF has partnered with APD, 892 and individuals with mental health concerns have been treated in the districts of Kolar, Davangere, Chikkaballapur and Bijapur in Karnataka. Over 4620 students participated in awareness building sessions. TLLLF and APD have also secured the participation of 810 community health workers including ASHA workers in the mental health awareness projects - a crucial victory as these workers play an important role in spreading awareness about health. Post treatment, 155 patients have resumed their previous occupations.

To mark World Mental Health Day, 2017, a team from TLLLF lead by Deepika Padukone visited program participants in the Davengere district.

Sessions on World Mental Health Day, 2017.
Sessions on World Mental Health Day, 2017.

In the face of a mental health crisis, it is essential to overcome the treatment gap present across the country, rural and urban. While awareness campaigns attempt to destigmatise mental disorders, policymakers need to make treatment accessible and cost effective. Until then, organisations like TLLLF and APD are doing what they can to create an environment that acknowledges and supports people who live with mental disorders. To know more, see here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of The Live Love Laugh Foundation and not by the Scroll editorial team.