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Digital divide: Montana's children face technological challenges.

Many children in America today have access to the Internet. But if a child live, s in a low-income, rural household, his or her chances of getting online are diminished, With 34 percent of Montana's children living in households earning $30,000 or less and most of the state being considered rural, Montana must work hard to overcome a growing digital divide.

Research shows that technology has positive impacts on health outcomes and academic performance; it also provides economic opportunity to young people and increases civic involvement in local communities.

Between 1994 and 2004, there have been substantial changes in information and communications technology among American youth. The number of children who have computers at home has doubled, and the number of public schools equipped with Internet connections has gone from one-third to 100 percent (Table 1).

The Children's Partnership (www.childrenspartnership.org), a national nonprofit, nonpartisan child advocacy organization, undertook an important study on how to measure digital opportunity for America's children. The purpose of the study was to help answer the question: How can the Internet help our children succeed? The study report looked not just at academic achievement, but also at whether technology might improve lives in other meaningful ways, such as leading healthier lives, being prepared for the work force, and becoming engaged in their local communities. The report also showed the importance of technology and how each state rates in providing its children with access to high-speed Internet.

Even in the short time since the report was released in 2005, the impacts of the Internet and the necessity of accessing it as part of our daily lives have become a more significant. Increasingly, broadband technology has become the means of delivery for high-speed Internet, and this infrastructure delivers essential service to young Americans: services around education, health care, work force, and civic participation.

The New Work

In 2002, 57 percent of employed Americans older than 25 used a computer at work. By the year 2010, jobs in the computer and mathematical fields are expected to increase by 67 percent. More and more workplaces expect workers to be computer literate and Internet savvy, and use of the Web to post and find jobs is increasingly becoming the norm for businesses and job-seekers alike United States now lags in high-speed internet penetrations in 2000 the United States ranked fourth, but in 2005 it had fallen to 16th in broadband penetration per capita. In Japan, high speed Internet has an average Connection speed 16 times faster than in the United States.

Montana's Work Force and Technology

Montana does not rank high in some of the measures to assess the new work force and the benefits of being prepared with technology skills. According to the Children's Partnership report, Montana ranks 39th in the rate of private sector workers who are employed by high-tech firms (32 out of every 1,000 employees). Measured against 52 other states (Puerto Rico and Washington, D.C., are included with the 50 States), the state ranks 48th for the overall number of high-tech workers and 48th for average high-tech wage. On a positive note, Montana's high-tech industry workers earn an average of $17,238 more per year than other private sector workers.

The report looked at four different dimensions of how information and communications technology can impact and potentially improve life outcome for young people: health, educational achievement, economic opportunity, and community and civic participation.

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Improved Health

Information and communications technology has positive impacts in improving health outcomes through increased communication among parents, patients, and health care practitioners. It is also a cost-effective tool to help manage chronic health conditions among children, such as asthma. Technology can be used as an educational tool on sensitive subjects about which young people might not ask but would seek information from the anonymity of the Internet. With better education, it has been shown that young people will make better choices about healthy behavior. Almost 20 percent of all young adults between the ages of 18 and 25 use the Internet to search for health information.

Educational Achievement

The appropriate use of technology in an educational setting has been shown to help students improve their grades. However, without highly trained teachers, the tool can be rendered ineffective. Fifty-three percent of teachers nationwide use technology in their classrooms, and more than half of school age children use home computers to complete their school assignments. Many of the studies reviewed for the Children's Partnership report showed there is evidence that information and communications technology can have a significant impact on improving academic performance for students with lower grades or from low-income or rural backgrounds.

Economic Opportunity

There are two significant ways that technology can impact economic opportunity for young people: They are prepared for better jobs, and they can use the Internet to search, apply for, and obtain jobs. Teaching at-risk youth marketable computer skills helps them get jobs and often helps them to resume or continue their educations: Likewise, young people proficient in Internet use can successfully find jobs online. Increasingly without technological skills, young people are less competitive in the job market.

Community and Civic Participation

There is, as yet, no empirical research available showing that information and communications technology actually increase young people's civic involvement; however, there are thousands of sites offering a variety of ways that young people can become involved in their, local communities. Thus, technology would appear to hold tremendous promise in engaging young people by offering a new forum in which to share views and communicate widely. The explosion of blogging is just one example of this increasing use of the Internet to communicate their views. Through sites like www.moveon.org and www.myspace.com, political campaigns have found the Internet their major means of attracting young people to become involved in politics. Young people have been a group that heretofore has been notoriously disengaged in the political process.

Digital Opportunity for America's Youth

Despite the myriad opportunities that lie in the use of technology, it is clear that these opportunities are not being delivered to all children. Table 2 shows the income disparities on access to a computer, Internet or broadband at home between low-income versus moderate-income families. Although the percentages may have changed since 2003, it is unlikely that the access gap has been significantly reduced.

The report looked at the disparities in digital opportunities for children and young adults using the four different dimensions of how information and communications technology can impact and potentially improve life outcomes for young people. The access gap becomes even more significant for minorities and low-income children. The exception is Asian-American children and young adults; this minority group uses technology at rates equal to or greater than their white counterparts. American Indian, Latino, and African-American children and young adults have access to technology at approximately the same rates, which are significantly lower than Asian-Americans or whites.

Montana's Digital Opportunity Gap

With income disparities being apparent in access to information and communications technology, how does Montana measure up to providing its young people with this tool? Our public schools do well in providing Internet-connected computers to students; there are 3.1 students for every Internet-connected computer compared to the national average of 4.1. In high-poverty schools this ratio remains the same, whereas the national average rises to 4.5 students for every Internet-connected computer. However, in 28 percent of Montana public schools at least half of the teachers are technology "beginners." Nationally, this number is 19 percent.

Montana's Economic Disparities

There are no numbers specific to Montana about low-income families' access to information and communications technology. However, it is safe to assume that the economic disparities for the nation as a whole would hold true for the state. Thus, we need to look at poverty rates to conjecture about the growing digital divide and how some of our children are not keeping up with their wealthier counterparts.

Despite Montana's growing economy, the rate of Montanans living in poverty grew from 13 percent in 2000 to 14 percent in 2005. During the same period, national poverty rates went from 12 percent to 13 percent. However, poverty rates for Montana's children ages 0-17 are even higher. In 2005, 20 percent lived in households below the federal poverty level ($20,000 per year for a family of four), a fairly consistent percentage since 2000. However, that percentage sharply increases to 34 percent for children living in households below 150 percent of the federal poverty level ($30,000 per year for a family of four).

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There has been little change in these rates over the past five years. This lack of change holds true for children living in extreme poverty (below 50 percent of the poverty rate) up to children living below 250 percent of the poverty rate. The group representing the largest share (23 percent) of children in poverty is kids under 5 years of age. Thus, if access to technology has a direct correlation to income, we can conjecture that many Montana children are not able to take advantage of the opportunities available through technology.

Montana's rural nature and low population density also affect the building of infrastructure needed for Internet access. For commercial network services, metropolitan areas are more attractive places to build infrastructure because the large number of paying users on the network can overcome the initial costs of building it. Given these high costs and small returns, there is an economic disincentive for constructing networks in less populated areas. Digital infrastructure for high-speed Internet is coming more slowly to rural America, a fact that is even more apparent in the frontier areas of Montana. Despite this situation, according to Montana's Governor's Office of Economic Development, more than 80 percent of the state's population lives within 50 miles of a high-speed Internet connection, and everyone in the state has the capability of local dial-up connectivity to the Internet.

A report by Pew Internet and American Life Project (www. pewinternet.org), "Rural Areas and the Internet," states that in rural areas income, age, and educational levels are the most statistically signification reasons for not accessing the Internet. Rural demographics are consistent with being lower-income, older, and less likely to have higher-education degrees. According to the Pew report, an annual income of $30,000 is the threshold for going online. The percentage of the population living in households earning under $30,000 a year is larger in rural areas 47 percent than in suburban areas (29 percent) and urban areas (39 percent).

There are many gaps in the research needed to adequately assess the true impact of information and communications technology, and because of the rapid growth and changes in the field of technology, research often lags behind and quickly becomes outdated. This article has not begun to address the risks associated with information and communications technology for children; some of these risks are fortunately being addressed at the national level, but again technological advances often stay one step ahead of our ability to protect our children from online predators, commercialism, and privacy concerns. However, it is clear that technology is a vital part of growing up in the world today, and every effort must be made to ensure it is available to all children. Otherwise, disparities in achievement at school and in the workplace will only continue to grow.

Daphne Herling is director of community relations for Montana Kids Count and the Bureau of Business and Economic Research.
Table 1

Technology and Youth

TECHNOLOGY AND YOUTH IN SCHOOLS 1994 2003

Children ages 7-17 who live in households with personal
 computers 36% 77%
Children ages 7-17 with broadband connections at home 0% 26%

TECHNOLOGY AND YOUTH IN SCHOOLS 1994 2003

Percentage of public schools with Internet connections 35% 100%
Percentage of public school "instructional rooms" with
 Internet connections 3% 93%
Percentage of public school "instructional rooms" with
 wireless Internet connections n/a 11%

HOW YOUNG PEOPLE USE INFORMATION AND COMMUNICATIONS 1994 2001
TECHNOLOGY

Percentage of online youth ages 12-17 who use instant
 messaging (IM) 0% 74%
Percentage of online youth ages 12-17 who have worked
 on or created Web pages 0% 24%

Source: www.childrenspartnership.org.

Table 2

Income Disparities in Access to Computer, Internet, and Broadband

 ANNUAL ANNUAL
 HOUSEHOLD HOUSEHOLD
 INCOME INCOME
 UNDER MORE THAN
 $15,000 $75,000

Percentage of youth ages 7-17 with access to
 a computer at home in 2003 45% 96%
Percentage of youth ages 7-17 with access to
 the Internet at home in 2003 29% 93%
Percentage of youth ages 7-17 with access to
 broadband at home in 2003 7% 51%

Source: www.childrenspartnership.org.

Table 3

Disparities in Digital Opportunities for Children and Young Adults

IMPROVED HEALTH

Percentage of young adults ages 18-25 who use the
Internet to search for health information 61%
 Latino 11%
 White 22%
 African-American 12%
 Asian-American 23%
 American Indian 13%

EDUCATIONAL ACHIEVEMENT

Percentage of children in school ages 7-17 who 58%
use a home computer to complete school assignments
 Annual household income of less than $15,000 29%
 Annual household income of $75,000 or more 77
Percentage of parents with online children ages 12-17 who 59%
use e-mail to communicate with their child's teacher
 Annual household income of less than $30,000 9%
 Annual household income of $50,000 or more 33%

ECONOMIC OPPORTUNITY

Percentage of young people ages 7-17 who use word processing 62%
or desktop publishingprograms on the computer at home
 Latino 23%
 White 45%
 African-American 22%
 Asian-American 41%
 American Indian 21%
Percentage of young people ages 18-25 who use 63%
graphics/design programs on the computer at home
 Annual household income of less than $15,000 18%
 Annual household income of $75,000 or more 42%
Percentage of young people ages 18-25 who have used 64%
the Internet for a job search
 Latino 11%
 White 21%
 African American 18%
 Asian American 21%
 American Indian 17%

COMMUNITY AND CIVIC PARTICIPATION

Percentage of young adults ages 18-25 who use the Internet 65%
for downloading or submitting gov't forms
 Annual household income of less than $15,000 11%
 Annual household income of $75,000 or more 20%
Percentage of young adults ages 18-25 who use the Internet 66%
for downloading or submitting gov't forms
 Latino 8%
 White 19%
 African-American 9%
 Asian-American 18%
 American Indian 11%
Percentage of young adults ages 18-25 who use the Internet 67%
to search for gov't information
 Latino 12%
 White 22%
 African-American 12%
 Asian-American 22
 American Indian 13%

Note: Ethnicity figures are listed as a percentage
of the total population.

Source: www.childrenspartnership.org.
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Comment:Digital divide: Montana's children face technological challenges.
Author:Herling, Daphne
Publication:Montana Business Quarterly
Geographic Code:1U8MT
Date:Jun 22, 2007
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