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Students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds and female, African American, and Hispanic students report significantly lower levels of Web know-how than their higher socioeconomic and white male peers. To provide meaningful access, there also needs to be focus on Internet education and training. “Providing infrastructure without offering training is a bit like giving people cars without providing driver’s education,” says Eszter Hargittai. Credit: Courtesy, iStockphoto

NORTHWESTERN (US)—There is more to the Internet access story than just the difference between the Web-connected versus those not online at all.

Even among college freshmen and digital natives—young adults who grew up with the Internet—higher-level Internet skills, and more sophisticated Internet usage still strongly correspond to socioeconomic status.

The finding has important implications for the National Broadband Plan recently sent to Congress by the Federal Communications Commission.

“Spending billions of ‘stimulus’ dollars to wire the nation with high-speed Internet access alone will not ensure that all Americans have meaningful access to the Web,” says Eszter Hargittai, associate professor of communication studies at Northwestern University.

Even with similar levels of Internet access, Internet know-how is not randomly distributed among members of the so-called Net Generation, Hargittai says.

Details of the study are in the current issue of Sociological Inquiry.

“To provide meaningful access, the program will have to also focus on Internet education and training,” she adds. “Providing infrastructure without offering training is a bit like giving people cars without providing driver’s education.”

“Scholarly research on the Internet originally focused on the so-called ‘digital divide,'” says Hargittai. “The assumption is that once everyone has access to the Internet, issues of inequality are solved.”

Students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds and female, African American, and Hispanic students report significantly lower levels of Web know-how than their higher socioeconomic and white male peers.

“A federal infrastructure approach alone will not address the discrepancies in the benefits people can gain from Internet access,” Hargittai explains.

“Even when we control for basic access and for number of years spent online, we find that people from different backgrounds vary in their Internet understanding and use.”

Of the more than 1,000 college freshmen surveyed in the recent study, those with at least one parent with a graduate degree exhibited significantly higher-level Internet know-how than those whose parents had lower levels of education.

Students who have Internet access at home, at school and other sites, such as at a friend or family member’s home, also exhibit higher-level Internet know-how.

Hargittai’s study was based on a 2009 survey of 1,060 freshmen at the University of Illinois, Chicago.

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