An unhealthy digital divide

2 min read

K. “Vish” Viswanath, professor of health communication at Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH), is interested in finding better ways to communicate health information to lower-income individuals. He answers three questions about a recent study he co-authored that analyzed how the poor use the Internet when they are provided with access — the first randomized controlled trial to examine this issue.

Q: Everyone seems to be walking around with a smartphone these days. Is accessing the Internet still a problem?

A: Our study offers a correction to the idea that everyone uses the Internet. There is not sufficient data, especially about the poor, to make any broad generalizations about who is still not able to access the Internet, but it is reasonable to say that the “digital divide” is economic. Some recent studies take race and ethnicity out of the equation, but that does not make sense. In our country race and class are closely linked.

We have found that even when the poor can afford to buy a computer or a smartphone, they often cannot afford to pay the monthly bill to keep the connection. They go on and off the grid quite a bit. Even during our study when we were paying the Internet bill, they were losing their connection because they did not pay the cable or telephone bill that was bundled with it.