It’s been said that you should never leave home without them: phone, keys, and wallet.
In an age of constant communication and contact, the highly-evolved cell phone, now smart phone, is as ubiquitous as…well, keys and wallets. It goes everywhere you go. For many of us, we’d be lost without it.
For those who have, it can be hard to keep up in this rapid age of technology. For those who have not, the link between socioeconomic status and access to this key resource is tangible. This digital disparity reflects the very real and not so pretty features of our digital ecosystem. And now that COVID-19 has most folks avoiding public spaces and relying on their own wi-fi 24/7, the issue of universal internet access is of greater urgency than ever.
“The digital divide” refers to the unequal distribution of information and communication technology (ICT). According to the FCC, “high-speed Internet access, or broadband, is critical to economic opportunity, job creation, education, and civic engagement. But there are too many parts of this country where broadband is unavailable. In urban areas, 97% of Americans have access to high-speed fixed service. In rural areas, that number falls to 65%. And on Tribal lands, barely 60% have access. All told, nearly 30 million Americans cannot reap the benefits of the digital age.”
The challenges that farmworkers face in rural communities is compounded by the distribution dynamics of digital media. Choppy or unreliable service can interrupt or derail a financial transaction, schoolwork, or keeping in touch with loved ones. Though farmworkers are essential workers and, as such, are still out and about, information from official sources is more digitally-delivered than ever – meaning that a vast number of farmworkers without reliable internet aren’t getting information that is vital to their health and well-being. Instead, they may be forced to rely hear-say which, in turn, can lead to misinformation spreading like wildfire.
In 2019, Pew Research Center stated that 37% of adults over 29 and 58% of young adults 18 – 29 access the internet with their smart phones. We suspect that this ratio is even higher for farmworkers, if they’re able to access the internet at all. And, while mobility is convenient, it lacks the full functionality of the desktop. Mobile-friendly websites feature simplified content. In order to achieve the user-friendly experience, certain information may be omitted, according to recent academic literature, resulting in an information deficit among users. Research indicates that, “children who have mobile-only internet access go online less frequently and for a narrower range of learning activities than children who have access through a computer.” Owning a smartphone is only half the battle, in this case.
In the COVID-19 era, the need for a fast and reliable connection has never been so pressing. Lawmakers across the country have expedited legislation to make the internet more affordable and accessible while students, teachers, and everyone in between are urged to stay at home. Meanwhile, school districts are getting creative in the quest to “bring internet to the kids.”
The urgency of the matter may have pushed the issue to the forefront for now, but will it stay there? At AFOP Health & Safety, we make sure to disseminate training materials in a low-tech format, just in case farmworkers live in an area without internet or wi-fi access. Where available, trainers also use video conferencing and chat tools to reach and train farmworkers who are able to join. But it is not possible everywhere, so many farmworkers are having to go without.
The Internet was created to connect everyone and should not be a source of exclusion. Let’s press on in our quest to eliminate the digital divide.
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