U.S. College Students’ Internet Use: Race, Gender and Digital Divides

Authors


Abstract

The goal of this study was to learn about whether race and gender make a difference in Internet use among U.S. college students. A survey of college students at 40 U.S. higher education institutions was conducted, along with observations and interviews at several Midwestern U.S. universities. For comparison to the general U.S. population a nationwide telephone survey was undertaken. The study presents new data on Internet use among male and female college students, as well as trends in use across racial lines. Data on non-White Hispanic college student users of the Internet provides insight into Internet use among a group that appears to be underrepresented in the literature on college students and Internet use. The data analysis presents a complex picture of differential Internet use along gender lines, one that is generally consistent with the existing scholarly literature. Differential use based on race is a bit more complex. Stronger points of contrast emerge amongst White non-Hispanic, Hispanic, and Black non-Hispanic college students than they do when the respondents are grouped by gender.

Introduction

American college students make frequent use of the Internet in their daily lives. Jones’ 2002 study of Internet use amongst college students, “The Internet Goes to College,” published by the Pew Internet and American Life Project, reported that “86% of [American] college students have gone online, compared with 59% of the general population” (p. 2). Fortson, Scotti, Chen, Malone, and Del Ben (2007) reported that 90% of the respondents in their survey of college students at a southeastern U.S. university use the Internet on a daily basis. Cotten & Jelenewicz (2006) report even higher rates of use, with 97% of their sample of college freshman at a “midsized public research university in the mid-Atlantic region of the United States” (p. 499) accessing the Internet multiple times per day.

In the nearly 2 decades since the Internet became commonplace on college campuses across the United States, however, questions regarding differences in access to and use of the Internet amongst college students across gender and racial groups persist. Some scholars report that ‘digital divides’ upheld by gender and race may be narrowing on college campuses (Cotten & Jelenewicz, 2006; Odell, Korgen, Schumacher, and Delucchi, 2000), and yet many report that significant divides remain prominent (Cooper, 2006; Jackson, Ervin, Gardner, and Schmitt, 2001a; Norum & Weagley, 2006; Peluchette & Karl, 2008; Sherman et al., 2000; Zhang, 2002).

In particular, scholars identify differences between the ways in which male and female users spend their time online (Bressers & Bergen, 2002; Cotten & Jelenewicz, 2006; Fortson et al., 2007; Jackson et al., 2001a; Odell et al., 2000) and differing attitudes amongst male and females towards the Internet (Jackson et al., 2001a; McMillan & Morrison, 2006; Peluchette & Karl, 2008; Sherman et al., 2000; Slate, Manuel, and Brinson, 2002; Zhang, 2002). In addition to differences across gender lines, studies suggest that race can also be significant to various aspects of Internet use and access to information and communication technologies (ICTs) amongst college students (Hoffman & Novak, 1998; Jackson, Ervin, Gardner, and Schmitt, 2001b; Norum & Weagley, 2006; Slate et al., 2002).

The studies cited here provide key insight into the state of college students’ Internet use and prompt a series of questions: What is the state of these ‘digital divides,’ upheld by gender and by race, on college campuses? How are male and female college students and students of different races using the Internet? How might the differences cited here inform conceptions of digital divide(s)? The study reported here presents new data on Internet use among male and female college students, as well as trends in use across racial lines. Furthermore, with data on non-White Hispanic college student users of the Internet, this study addresses a group that appears to be underrepresented in the literature on college students and Internet use.

Literature Review

Digital divide(s)

Since it came into popular parlance and scholarly literature in the 1990 s, the phrase “digital divide” has been used to refer to a wide variety of inequities, including differential access to, contact with, and use of ICTs cross-nationally (see, for example, Drori & Jang, 2003; Parker, 2001; Parker, 2007) as well as between social and demographic groups within individual nations (Willis and Tranter, 2006, for instance, examine digital divides in Australia). The phrase is used perhaps most commonly to refer to differences in access to ICTs (see Gunkel, 2003; Selwyn, 2004),1 though use of the concept varies greatly.

The way in which the concept of a “digital divide” is framed conveys varying levels of urgency regarding its underlying causes and potential consequences. Sassi (2005) notes that depending on one's “basic conceptual choices” and analytical framework, “[t]he digital divide may be conceived of as a serious social problem or temporary discomfort” (Sassi, 2005, p. 695). Some use the concept, for example, to refer to groups advantaged or disadvantaged by their contact (or lack thereof) with ICTs (Crews & Feinberg, 2002; Rogers, 2001; Wilson, Wallin & Reiser, 2003). Wilson et al., for example, suggest the digital divide refers to “the gap between those who are reaping the advantages of this new technology [computers and the Internet] and those who are not” (p. 133). This gap is problematic because it constitutes a form of “social stratification” between technological “haves” and “have-nots.” It seems the most effective or appropriate “leveling agent” for this variety of social hierarchy remains undiscovered.

Many scholars argue that when it comes to understanding digital divides, differential access is only part of the issue; exploring the qualities of differential use and the “social and cultural norms that reinforce” digital divides (Jackson, 2007, p. 154) is also crucial (Gunkel, 2003; Selwyn, 2004, among others). Selwyn, for example, remarks that “… access to ICT does not denote use of ICT. Similarly, use of ICT does not necessarily entail ‘meaningful use of ICT’ or what could be termed as ‘engagement”’ that is significant to the user (p. 349). Jackson (2007) notes that even when gaps in access are bridged, differences in use “may have the unintended consequence of deepening other divides” such as “the secondary divide of gender” (p. 154). She cites Cheong's work on women's use of ICT's in Singapore as an example. Despite high levels of diffusion in the country, according to Jackson's account of Cheong's study, “women continue to exhibit the same patterns of low perception of Internet efficacy as are found in countries with much lower rates of diffusion” (p. 154). Clearly access describes only part of the picture when it comes to contact with and use of ICT and the Internet.

Gender and Internet use

Among U.S. college students, gender remains a significant predictor of types of Internet use. As Jackson et al. (2001a) put it, in their study male and female college students “used the Internet equally often, but used it differently” (p. 374). They attribute females’ more communicative uses of the Internet to “well-established evidence that women are more interpersonally oriented than are men and that men are more information/task oriented than are women” (p. 368) Fortson et al. (2007) point to a trend in the literature they examine: In broad terms, male college students are more likely to use the Internet as a source of entertainment, while female college students are more likely to go online for communicative and educational purposes. They note that in their own study, however, males and females exhibited similar academic uses of the Internet, and also similar rates of e-mail use.

Literature surveyed for the present study suggests that males are generally found to use the Internet for a wider variety of purposes than females. Based on a sample of “843 students from eight colleges and universities” (p. 856) in the U.S., Odell et al. (2000) found that male college students were more likely than females to “research purchases (36.4% vs. 26.6%), look for news (59.5% vs. 39.7%), play games (43.6% vs. 26.6%), listen/copy music on the Internet (49.6% vs. 26.9%),” and look at sex sites online (25.5% vs. 1.3%) (p. 857). Bressers & Bergen (2002) suggest that male students are also more likely to read the online version of their school newspaper than are females, and use the Internet for games, sports, “personal finance,”“computing/technology,”“politics/government,” and “adult content” (p. 40). In seeming contradiction to the observation that male and female college students spend approximately the same amount of time online (Fortson et al., 2007; Jackson et al., 2001a; Odell et al., 2000), Bressers & Bergen report that overall male college students spent a considerably greater amount of time using the Internet than female college students. Given the wide variety of activities males pursue online, it is somewhat unsurprising to note that they are also more likely than females to report spending time enough on the Web to be considered Internet abusers (Anderson, 2001; Morahan-Martin & Schumacher, 2000).

In contrast to their male counterparts, female college student Internet users generally go online for communicative purposes, though there are conflicting accounts of the specific activities they pursue with greater frequency than male college students. Bressers & Bergen (2002) find that female college students are more likely to search for “information related to family/children” online than are male college students (p. 40). Cotten & Jelenewicz (2006) find that female college students spend less time playing games online and more time using bulletin boards than male college students. Odell et al. (2000) report that more female college students use the Internet for e-mail, bulletin boards, and to conduct research for school than male college student Internet users, though they suggest that other confounding variables, namely the type of school attended (private/public), academic major, and study habits may also be significant. In keeping with those findings, Sherman et al. (2000) report that female college students spent significantly more time using e-mail than male college students. In keeping with Fortson et al. (2007), Bressers & Bergen (2002) find, however, that males and females spend roughly equal amounts of time using e-mail, and that male and female college students exhibit “no statistically significant difference” related to academic research, general information searching, “job searches or shopping” (p. 40).

Gender and Attitudes Toward the Internet

Male and female college students who use the Internet report different concerns related to use and privacy, as well as differences in attitudes toward the medium. In a multiyear study from 1997–1999, Sherman et al. (2000) found that “with the exception of e-mail usage, men in our study used the technology more often and had more positive attitudes about their experiences than women” (p. 892). Slate et al. (2002) similarly report of their survey of Hispanic freshmen at a Southwestern U.S. university that men had more positive attitudes about the Internet than women and expressed “more comfort and less confusion” (p. 90) regarding Internet use than their female counterparts (while females undergraduates expressed more positive attitudes regarding educational uses of the Internet than males). Zhang's (2002) comparative study of Internet use amongst college students and employees of a telecommunications company found that with regards to “Internet anxiety” males in both samples “felt more comfortable with the Internet than females” (p. 147). Jackson et al. (2001a) draw upon Jackson's (1998) model of Internet use, which suggests that “motivational, affective, and cognitive factors are both antecedents and consequents of use” (p. 364). They find that females were more likely to report “computer anxiety, less computer self-efficacy, and less favorable attitudes about the importance of computer technology than did males” (p. 374). Females are generally more wary of computers and computer use, and also “somewhat more likely than males to believe that computers are taking over” (p. 372). This belief may explain some of their apparent reticence towards Internet use when compared to male patterns of use.

Sherman et al.'s 2000 study suggests that attitudinal differences between male and female users may be related to whether or not they feel the Internet is “personally relevant” to their lives (p. 893). They report differences between males and females regarding Internet “role models.” They asked participants about the sex of the people who most influenced them to use the Internet, and found that for a clear majority of their male respondents (83%), “a male was their greatest influence” (p. 893). Slightly less than half of their female respondents (47%) reported that a male was their greatest influence; for 53% of the females, a woman most influenced them to go online. The authors submit, “that women in Internet-oriented courses taught by male instructors are not as likely to see the technology as personally relevant compared to women in courses where the instructor is female” (p. 893). They put forth that if, in a university setting, the large majority of instructors who incorporate Internet-based components into their classes are male, it is unlikely that gender gaps will be reduced.

In addition to the impact of the university setting on Internet use, McMillan & Morrison (2006) suggest that family environments may reinforce gender stereotypes related to use and perceptions of the Internet. Based on 72 autobiographical essays from “young adult college students,” (p.73) the authors observe that in respondents’ homes, “Typically, fathers were presented as enablers while mothers were viewed as reticent in their use of communication technology” (p. 80). Cooper's (2006) work, which includes exploration of the impact of gender-related stereotypes on computer performance, suggests that if negative stereotypes associated with female use of technology remain salient and are socially reinforced, they may contribute to various digital divides between male and female college students.

Race and Internet Use

Studies that examine race as a factor influencing college students’ use of the Internet offer a similarly mixed portrait, though generally studies find continued evidence of differential use of and attitudes towards the medium. Some suggest that digital divides based on race are persistent (Cooper, 2006; Hoffman & Novak, 1998; Mullis, Mullis & Cornille, 2007; Slate et al. 2002), while others report that they are becoming less pronounced (Cotten & Jelenewicz, 2006; Jackson et al., 2001b). Differential use between races does not appear to be an artifact of time, as both recent and decade-old studies evince differences in access and use across racial lines.

Hoffman & Novak (1998) analyze “data from the Spring 1997 CommerceNet/Nielsen Internet Demographic Study” that took place during December 1996 and January 1997 (p. 1). They demonstrate significant differences amongst students with regards to access and use that were tied to race and computer ownership. White students surveyed (73%) were significantly more likely to own a home computer than African American students (32.9%) who participated in the survey. The authors note that even when adjusted for household income, race still emerged as a predictor of computer ownership.

Hoffman & Novak report a racial divide amongst students who do not own home computers, as well: “White students lacking a home computer, but not African American students, appear to be finding some alternative means of accessing the Internet” (emphasis removed, p. 6). They write, “It is strikingly apparent that white students are much more likely than African American students to have used the Web at locations other than home, school, or work, regardless of whether there is a computer at home” (p. 7). The authors note that at the time of the study, African Americans were relatively newer users of the Internet, compared to Whites. Racial differences, they assert, may decrease as experience with the Internet increases across racial groups.

Norum & Weagley (2006) evaluate the ability of their sample of more than 7000 students at a Midwestern U.S. university to recognize a site secure for online purchases. Gender, race, and parents’ level of income were significant predictors of users’ abilities to recognize and purchase from a secure site, with significantly more male users able to identify a secure site than female users. Asian and Hispanic students were “significantly less likely to buy from a secure site than Caucasians” (p. 53). This finding may reflect differences in socioeconomic status, as students whose parents represented the “highest income bracket were significantly more likely relative to students from the middle [and lowest] income bracket[s] to recognize a secure site” (p. 57).

Jackson et al. (2001b) find relatively minor differences between African American and European American college students’ use of the Internet, “limited to differences in e-mail use” (p. 2038). Differences in use across racial lines in Cotten & Jelenewicz's (2006) study of full-time college freshmen living in the dorms at one U.S. university were similar in kind to a common pattern of differences noted between genders: While race was significant to the activities Whites and Blacks pursued online, “neither race nor Internet experience was significantly associated with students’ Internet usage levels” (p. 501). Respondents indicated they spent an average of 28 hours per week using the Internet for “communicative purposes and 14 hrs for noncommunicative purposes” (p. 500). White students reported slightly greater use of email than Black students. Furthermore, “Whites were more likely to report spending any time playing games and using the Internet for other things than non-Whites” (p. 500). These differences, however, were slight. Cotten & Jelenewicz report that overall, “once college students begin using the Internet for various activities” (p. 501), differences across racial lines were negligible.

Race and attitudes toward the Internet

Several studies report strong correlations between attitudes towards and perceptions of the Internet and race. In a survey of approximately 150 female undergraduate students “at a large southeastern university,” (p. 418) Mullis et al. (2007) find “that White emerging adults may be more affected by their perceptions of problem Internet use than their Black counterparts” (p. 422). Jackson et al. (2001b) assess the “motivational, affective, and cognitive factors that may influence Internet use and account in part for the racial digital divide” (p. 2021). They show significant differences in perception of the Internet across racial lines. Specifically, Jackson et al. (2001b) find that over European American college students, “African Americans were more likely to believe that computers were taking over” (p. 2032) and were more likely to feel, “there will still be good jobs in the future that do not require computer skills” (p. 2032). European Americans, by contrast, felt that within 5 years, computer skills would be essential. European American students were also more likely to agree that computers “help you to increase control in your life” (p. 2032). Differences in these attitudinal measures highlight their relevance as predictors and outcomes of differential Internet use.

Slate et al. (2002)'s study of more than 200 Hispanic college freshmen at a southwestern university points to primary language spoken in the home (Spanish or English) as a predictor of access and patterns of Internet use, as well as attitudes towards the medium. Students whose primary language at home was English felt that the Internet was more useful than those whose primary language at home was Spanish, and reported “less anxiety in using the Internet for classes” (p. 90). They were also more likely to own a computer and to have Internet access at home. Students whose primary language at home was Spanish report learning to use ICT through a class, journal or book, at a “library instructional session,” or from friends, with greater frequency than students whose primary language at home was English (p. 89). Slate et al.'s study suggests that institutions of higher learning can provide an important point of access and key ICT education for Hispanic college students for whom the primary language spoken at home is Spanish.

Issues of access and “prior Internet experience” become particularly significant to students’ feelings of Internet self-efficacy (Eastin & LaRose, 2000, ¶ 11). Internet self-efficacy “reflects what individuals believe they can do with the skills they possess” (¶ 3). Eastin & LaRose explain that Internet use and experience are “positively correlated to Internet self-efficacy judgments” (¶ 34). Internet self-efficacy may interact with stereotype threat (Cooper, 2006) to make groups with greater obstacles to access less willing to use the Internet for certain purposes, or less likely to perceive it as a positive addition to daily life.

Methodology

A research team collected survey data from 29 two- and four-year colleges and universities in the continental United States. The survey was administered online during the Spring 2005 academic term. Recruitment took place via mass e-mail to all students at the 29 campuses. At 11 other campuses a randomly selected sample of students stratified by class (Freshman, Sophomore, etc.) was recruited. A total of 7,421 respondents completed the survey.

The goal during recruitment was to gain a sample that reflected general demographics of U.S. college students. The campuses involved reflected a wide variety of institutions of higher education, including public, private, flagship, regional, urban, rural, research-oriented, teaching-oriented, etc. Recruitment techniques were aimed at achieving a sample that reflected student demographics reported for each institution. The sample was tested against National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) data on U.S. college students’ gender, race, and age (2005). The sample was found to reflect the national population of college students. Where available individual campus student demographics were obtained to test against individual campus samples. In those cases, too, the samples and student demographics showed a high degree of correspondence.

Table A show NCES data and survey responses for gender and illustrates the general correspondence between the two surveys.

Table A. College Students’ Gender
 2005 SurveyNCES Survey
Male43.5%42.5%
Female56.5%57.5%

Table B compares NCES data and survey responses for race. It, too, shows a general correspondence between the two surveys. Survey findings report only data for Black non-Hispanic, Hispanic, and White non-Hispanic college students due to the relatively small sample size of American Indian and Asian students.

Table B. College Students’ Race
 2005 SurveyNCES Survey
American Indian1.0%1.0%
Asian6.15.9
Black, non-Hispanic11.712.0
Hispanic9.711.0
White, non-Hispanic64.959.5
Missing/unknown6.77.5

The survey did not specifically include an “unknown” race category, but 6.7% of respondents did left the question about race unanswered.

Table C shows NCES data and survey responses for age. College students under 18 years of age were considered minors and not surveyed due to restrictions placed on the research by the Institutional Review Boards at the schools where the surveys were given.

Table C. College Students’ Age
 2005 SurveyNCES Survey
14–17 years old1.5%
18 & 19 years old25.1%28.7
20 & 21 years old34.228.2
22–24 years old21.219.2
25+ years old13.317.6
No answer6.34.8

Sampling error, the wording of individual questions, and practical obstacles with survey administration may introduce bias or error into the data. With regards to sampling error, one can say with 95% confidence that the error attributable to sampling and other random effects is plus or minus 1 percentage point.

A team of graduate and undergraduate researchers also collected ethnographic data during the Fall 2005, Spring 2006, and Fall 2006 academic terms. The researchers were trained in ethnographic methods of observation and data collecting. They observed the behaviors of college students using the Internet at several institutions of higher education in the upper Midwest. The researchers varied the times they spent observing college students in public places at the various institutions included in the study where college students could be found using the Internet.

This study also includes data on Americans’ Internet use collected through telephone interviews by Princeton Survey Research Associates. Interviews were conducted during two periods. The first round of interviews took place May 4 - June 7, 2005; the sample was drawn from U.S. adults, 18 and older, and totaled 2,001 responses. For the results based on the total sample, one can say with 95% confidence that the error attributable to sampling and other random effects is plus or minus 2 percentage points. For results based on the number of Internet users, 1,336, one can say with 95% confidence that the error attributable to sampling and other random effects is plus or minus 3 percentage points. The second interviews took place November 24 - December 31, 2005, among a sample of the U.S. population, 18 and older. For results based on the total sample of 3,011, one can say with 95% confidence that the error attributable to sampling and other random effects is plus or minus 2 percentage points. For results based on the number of Internet users, 1,931, one can say with 95% confidence that the error attributable to sampling and other random effects is plus or minus 2 percentage points. In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting telephone surveys may introduce error or bias into the findings of opinion polls. At least 10 attempts were made to complete an interview at every household in the sample. The calls were staggered over times of day and days of the week to maximize the chances of making contact with a potential respondent. Interview refusals were recontacted at least once in order to try again to complete an interview.

Gender and Internet Use

Two-thirds (66%) of the male college students sampled have more than 10 years of experience using the Internet, while the percentage of female college students in this block of Internet veterans is slightly lower, 56%. Almost half of male college students reported using wi-fi (47%), compared to just under one-third of female college students (30%). More female college students than male college students, however, said wi-fi is the method they use most often to connect to the Internet (6% females versus 3% males). Although the majority of college students reported going online many times throughout the day, male college students were more likely to connect overnight than female college students (15% compared with 3%, respectively). Female college students were more likely to be online in the afternoon than male college students (11% compared with 4%).

Male college students reported spending more time online than their female counterparts. Half (50%) of the males in the survey reported spending more than 3 hours a day on the Internet, whereas only one-third (33%) of females reported doing so. The proportion of students who spent between 2 to 3 hours a day was roughly the same: 26% of males and 25% of females. Among those who reported being online 2 or less hours a day, females outnumbered males (36% to 19%, respectively).

There is greater library use (both in person and online) among female college students compared with male college students (Table D). An interesting disparity becomes apparent when one examines preference for particular information sources (Table E). Female college students are much more likely to use mainstream information sources (search engines, library websites, etc.) than male students, while males are much more likely to go to nonmainstream online information sources. Some of the online information sources cited by male college students include academic journals, online journals, Wikipedia, and Infotrac.

Table D. In a typical week, how many hours do you use the library (both in person and online)?
 FemaleMale
Less than 3 hours55%45%
4 to 7 hours67%33%
8 to 11 hours49%51%
12 or more hours69%31%
Table E. Where do you search for information online? (Select all that apply)
 FemaleMale
Search engines56%44%
Library websites63%37%
News websites60%40%
Online encyclopedias61%39%
Other sources67%33%

Not surprisingly, given their heavier use of the Internet, male college students are more likely to feel that the Internet takes time away from other social activities. One-third of males (35%) felt this way while the proportion of females who think the same is close to one-fourth (23%). Also not surprising if one considers the difference in the amount of time spent online, one-third of female college students (34%) study more than 8 hours per week, whereas the proportion of males who study as much is just one-fifth (20%).

When asked what they most often did online, communicating socially ranked first among females (47%) but ranked second among males (31%). Male college students reported that entertainment is their most frequent use of the Internet (42%). One-fourth (25%) of female college students said their most frequent use of the Internet was for academic work, whereas less than one-fifth (17%) of male college students reported academics to be their most frequent use of the Internet. When asked which online communication medium they use most, both male and female college students chose e-mail and IM. Males and females differed, however, in their order of preference for these online tools. A majority (59%) of females said e-mail is the online communication tool they use most, while just over half as many (33%) said they use IM most. Males slightly favor IM (43%) over e-mail (36%). When asked about which type of Internet communication they use the most to communicate with classmates, far more females preferred e-mail (60%) over IM (27%), whereas a few more males choose e-mail (47.2%) ahead of IM (41.7%) for communicating with classmates.

Online Activities and Gender Differences

Clear gender differences emerged in relation to the activities college students pursued online. For example, about 2 out of 5 (41%) male college students reported going online to check sport scores at least once a week, whereas fewer than 1 in 5 (17%) female college students reported doing so. While 62% of male college students reported listening to music or watching videos online at least once a week, the percentage of female college students who did so was 46%. In the same vein, the percentage of male college students who reported downloading music at least once per week was greater (37%) than the percentage of female college students (20%). Similarly, more male than female college students −62% compared with 45%, respectively- look for information on leisure activities (movies, music, books, etc.) at least once per week. One-fourth (26%) of male college students have ever formed a romantic relationship online before meeting in person, as compared to one-sixth of female college students (17%). More male college students (22%) have tried online dating than females (13%).

While these differences in online activities are pronounced, the greatest point of contrast comes from reports of having visited an adult website. Whereas more than half of male college students (53%) reported visiting an adult site at least once a week, the percentage of females reporting having done so was only 9%. Four out of five (79%) female college students reported never having visited an adult website, compared with three out of 10 (31%) male college students.

In general female college students seemed more concerned about the privacy of their personal data online than male college students. Seventy-eight percent (78%) of female college students were very concerned or somewhat concerned about the privacy of their personal data online. Females’ concern for privacy and personal data did not, however, translate into greater efforts to protect themselves online, as the number of female and male college students who take security measures online is about the same (55% of females compared with 52% of males).

Male and female college students similarly reported using file-sharing applications (63% and 65% respectively). Female college students appear hardly more likely than male college students to keep a blog (34% of females compared with 31% of males). There is, however, a slight gender difference regarding the frequency of blog updates: 44% of female college student bloggers update their blog at least once per week, while only 31% of male college bloggers update their blog with at least that frequency. One interview subject described blogs as “a place where you can vent. It's very impersonal, you can put whatever you want, and no one can do anything about it.”

Race and General Internet Use

Although attention to the “digital divide” seems to have waned in popular discussion, evidence of differential use among college students, when grouped by race, persists. When it comes to the number of veteran Internet users (those using it for 10 or more years), there is little statistical variation between Black non-Hispanic college students (15%), White non-Hispanic college students (12%) and Hispanic college students (12%). One interesting finding, however, is that Hispanic and Black non-Hispanic college students are more likely than White non-Hispanic college students to have first begun using the Internet at school (Table F). This suggests that a digital divide may stem from differences in home computer ownership, which is likely correlated with socioeconomic status.

Table F. First began using the Internet:
 At homeAt school
Black, non-Hispanic44%49%
Hispanic43%53%
White, non-Hispanic56%35%

In 2002, Jones reported the three most common uses of the Internet amongst college students were social communication, entertainment, and coursework (Jones, 2002). In the present study, White, non-Hispanic and Black, non-Hispanic college students reported that they use the Internet most often for social communication. Hispanic college students, however, ranked first for frequency of use what the other groups ranked second: entertainment (Table G). It is not possible from the data to speculate about the reasons for these differences, but it will be important for researchers to try to determine what, if any, the underlying causes of these differences may be.

Table G. I most often use the Internet to…
 Communicate sociallyBe entertainedEngage in coursework
Black, non-Hispanic36%23%25%
Hispanic36%46%13%
White, non-Hispanic42%28%22%

Overall, the data show that Internet use is increasing at the greatest rate amongst Black, non-Hispanic, and Hispanic college students. When asked whether they use the Internet more now than compared to 6 months ago, 48% of Black, non-Hispanic college students said they used it more now, as did 36% of Hispanic college students, while only 30% of White, non-Hispanic college students agreed. Hispanic college students were most likely to agree (44%) that the Internet takes time away from other social activities, while only 27% of White, non-Hispanic college students agreed that the Internet took time away from other social activities, and only 19% of Black, non-Hispanic college students agreed.

Race and Academic Internet Use

Hispanic college students are less likely to use the Internet to communicate with their professors than are their Black, non-Hispanic and White, non-Hispanic counterparts, by a significant margin. While 86% of college students in the latter two groups reported using the Internet to communicate with professors, only 63% of Hispanic college students reported doing so. Hispanic college students were also less likely to have submitted an assignment via the Internet, with 58% reporting having done so, compared with 80% of Black, non-Hispanic and White, non-Hispanic college students.

Of those college students who use the Internet to communicate with professors, Hispanic college students appear to be communicating less frequently. Some 40% of Black, non-Hispanic and 41% of White, non-Hispanic college students reported communicating via the Internet with professors about once per week, whereas 26% of Hispanic college students reported doing so. There is generally parity, however, among these three racial groups when it comes to communicating via the Internet with classmates, with about three-quarters in each group reporting that they do so. Interestingly, Hispanic college students reported communicating with classmates more frequently than those in other groups: just under half (49%) of Hispanic college students reported communicating online with classmates at least several times per week, compared with 38% of White, non-Hispanic college students and 36% of Black, non-Hispanic college students.

Hispanic college students were less likely to use the library for long periods of time during an average week than were White, non-Hispanic and Black, non-Hispanic students. When asked how many hours in a typical week they use the library, only 10% of Hispanic college students reported using it for 4 or more hours. By comparison, 18% of White, non-Hispanic college students and 29% of Black, non-Hispanic college students use the library for 4 or more hours in a typical week.

Despite differences in actual use overall, all three groups reported that the Internet has been beneficial to their college experience. Most Hispanic (81%), White, non-Hispanic (85%), and Black, non-Hispanic (81%) students agreed or strongly agreed with a statement that the Internet had a positive impact on their college academic experience in general.

Race and Social Communication Online

When it comes to social activities online, the data showed few disparities among college students sorted by racial group. For example, 44% of Black, non-Hispanic college students reported looking online at least once per week for information about a product or service they were thinking about buying, compared with 43% of White, non-Hispanic college students and 42% of Hispanic college students. All three racial groups also showed similar tendencies to look for information about music, movies or books: 51% of Hispanic college students, 52% of Black, non-Hispanic college students, and 53% of White, non-Hispanic college students reported doing so at least once per week.

Despite general similarities in social communication online, a few differences in use across racial lines emerged in the data. Significantly more Black, non-Hispanic college students reported keeping a blog (36%) than White, non-Hispanic college students (31%). Hispanic college students were least likely to keep a blog (27%).

Hispanic college students were least likely to use the Internet for 3 or more hours a week for social communication, with 37% reporting doing so compared with 48% of White, non-Hispanic college students and 52% of Black, non-Hispanic college students. Hispanic college students, however, were the group most likely to have formed a romantic relationship online. Nearly one-third (29%) reported having done so, compared with 20% of Black, non-Hispanic college students and 19% of White, non-Hispanic college students.

When asked what group of friends they most often communicated with online, Black, non-Hispanic college students indicated they were most likely to communicate with friends made on campus and least likely to communicate with ones from high school (Table I). Further research should be undertaken to determine the reasons for these differences. Perhaps social ties are correlated with early Internet access, or perhaps there are other variables that cause White, non-Hispanic college students to apparently more closely maintain ties to friends from high school.

Table I. The friends I most often communicate with online are…
 Friends made on campusFriends from high school
Black, non-Hispanic42%20%
Hispanic33%23%
White, non-Hispanic31%28%

Social communication is, of course, not confined to the Internet, and some groups are more likely than others to use it. In response to a question asking whether they would be more likely to use the phone than the Internet to communicate with friends and relatives, Black, non-Hispanic and Hispanic college students were more likely to agree or strongly agree—69% and 80%, respectively—that they would use the phone, compared with 59% of White, non-Hispanic college students (Table J).

Table J. I am more likely to use the phone than the Internet to communicate with friends and relatives:
 Black, non-HispanicHispanicWhite, non-Hispanic
Strongly agree23%30%24%
Agree465035
I don't know9511
Disagree181425
Strongly disagree515

Hispanic college students comprised the group most likely to listen to music or watch videos online; 63% of students in that group reported doing so at least once per week, compared with 58% of Black, non-Hispanic college students and 49% of White, non-Hispanic college students. All three groups, however, reported significant use of file sharing applications such as Kazaa or BitTorrent. Black, non-Hispanic college students were least likely to engage in file sharing (57%) compared with White, non-Hispanic college students (64%). Hispanic college students were slightly more likely (67%) than students in the other two racial groups to engage in file sharing.

Hispanic college students reported visiting adult websites almost twice as often as their Black and White non-Hispanic counterparts. Of the former group, 51% reported visiting adult websites at least once a week, whereas 25% of respondents in each of the latter two groups reported doing so.

Discussion

College students today are experienced Internet users, and incorporate the Internet into many aspects of their lives. From socializing online, to recreational Web surfing, to academic uses, students are comfortable using the Internet as an information resource, a medium through which to pursue relationships, and a source of entertainment. Sherman et al. (2000) acknowledge that technology must be made relevant to its users in order for it to be valued as an important resource and communication medium, and incorporated into daily activities. These results suggest that the Internet is relevant to different users in different ways and, therefore, that the concept of a digital divide is indeed a complicated construction in practice.

This study of male and female college students’ habits online presents a complex picture of differential use, one that is generally consistent with the existing scholarly literature surveyed here. The findings are in keeping with those of Bressers & Bergen (2002), who suggest that male college student Internet users spend more time online than female college student Internet users. Supporting Fortson et al.'s (2007) observation of a trend in the literature, and Odell et al. (2000) and Sherman et al.'s (2000) findings cited above, this study confirms that female college students tend to use the Internet for communicative and academic purposes more frequently than do their male counterparts.

Given this difference it is curious to note that the data show that for both male and female college students, Internet use may in some cases substitute for social interaction. Amongst college students’ most frequent uses of their time online, communicating socially ranked first for females and second for males. Approximately one-third (35%) of male and about a quarter (23%) of female respondents indicated that the time they spend online takes up time they would prefer to spend engaging in other social interactions. With males more prone to spending excessive amounts of time online (Anderson, 2001), the results are unsurprising. Although the percent of males and females who feel their time online takes the place of preferred social interactions is not overwhelming, it speaks to popular concerns regarding Internet use and sociability, and the depth of social relationships that are pursued online.

It is uncertain whether this finding reflects broader societal differences in gender, as Jackson et al. (2001a) suggest, or may perhaps be related to negative stereotypes about women and technology (Cooper, 2006). Our data suggest that women are more likely, for example, to report using mainstream information sources than men. It may be that unfavorable stereotypes negatively affect women's perception of their Internet self-efficacy (Eastin & LaRose, 2000), which in turn may affect their willingness to explore aspects of the Web that they feel may challenge their Internet skills. Male college students spend greater amounts of time pursuing a wide variety of leisure activities online with greater frequency than females, including listening to and downloading music, watching and downloading videos. The data are in line with the trend that Fortson et al. (2007) observed in past literature, suggesting that males see the Internet primarily as an outlet for leisure, while women make greater use of its social and educational functions. Given the increasing numbers of female college students, this difference may be related to offline academic trends in higher education. In this study, for instance, roughly one-third of female respondents (34%) reported studying for 8 or more hours per week, while just one-fifth (20%) of males report studying as much. Exploring the relationship between academic performance, attitudes about education, and Internet use presents a rich area for further study.

In Jackson et al.'s (2001a) study, males were more likely to have had a computer in their home before they entered college. Computer ownership is associated with use, which may, in the case of male college students, translate into using the Internet for a wider variety of purposes than females. Alternately, Cooper (2006) puts forth that stereotypes that suggest that females are less adept at using technology have a negative impact on females’ attitudes towards computer use and may undergird anxiety related to use of technology. Sherman et al. (2000) assert, “The Internet has been a male dominated technology since its beginning in the late 1960s” (p. 885). Writing from a feminist perspective, Jackson (2007) emphasizes that “masculinist ideologies of mastery and control” (p. 149) have strongly and consistently informed technological innovation. Future studies should explore the relationship between these perspectives and the seeming reticence of females to use the Internet for as wide a variety of activities as males.

The picture of differential use based on race is a bit more complex. Stronger points of contrast emerge amongst White non-Hispanic, Hispanic, and Black non-Hispanic college students than they do when the respondents are grouped by gender. Hispanic and Black non-Hispanic college students are more likely to have begun using the Internet at school, whereas White non-Hispanic college students are more likely to have begun using the Internet at home. This finding is in keeping with Hoffman & Novak's (1998) report that White students (73%) were significantly more likely to own a computer than African American students (32.9%). As mentioned above, Hoffman & Novak noted that even when adjusted for household income, race still emerged as a predictor of computer ownership. Slate et al. (2002) reported that many Hispanic students whose primary language at home was Spanish learned to use the Internet outside the home. Primary home language was not assessed in this survey but, given Slate et al.'s work, it may have been significant to the findings and should be an area for further study.

Despite significant differences, all three racial groups incorporated the Internet relatively equally into their social lives as an important medium for communication with friends. Also, college students across racial groups seem to hold similar attitudes about the Internet as an educational tool. Hispanic, Black non-Hispanic, and White non-Hispanic students all feel that the Internet has had a positive impact on their academic lives. Curiously, the students surveyed varied with regard to their use of the Internet as an academic resource. Hispanic students in particular were significantly less likely to use the Internet for academic purposes than their non-Hispanic White and non-Hispanic Black counterparts. Perhaps students have different ideas about what it means for a technology to be educationally beneficial, and so use of the Internet for academic purposes includes activities other than items measured here, for example, communicating with a professor via e-mail.

Conclusion

Regardless of the underlying cause, the tension between attitude and use is worthy of further exploration, and opens up important questions about the general concept of a digital divide. Sassi (2005) questions whether observable differences in access to and use of ICT and the Internet are reflective of “cultural differentiation” or are indicative of “more basic social inequality” (p. 686). Gunkel (2003) acknowledges the “plurality” of factors that contribute to the digital divide (p. 504). He writes, “there is not one digital divide; there is a constellation of different and intersecting social, economic, and technological differences, all of which are properly named ‘digital divide”’ (p. 504). Certainly, as Gunkel would agree, a simple binary that distinguishes between Internet ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’ in their various incarnations does not adequately account for the wide variability in patterns of use across demographic groups shown in this study. Differential use of and attitudes toward the Internet are particularly salient as institutions of higher learning increasingly incorporate Web-based tools into classroom instruction and university life. They will continue to be relevant after graduation, too, as, for example, greater numbers of economic transactions take place online, and more employers emphasize ICT skills. Whether the phenomena observed here are upheld by cultural differences, socioeconomic inequity, or a blend of other mediating factors, barring significant social or cultural change, it is unlikely that differential use between genders and racial groups will cease to exist, even as access, penetration rates, and exposure improve. While it is possible that some “divides” reflect different and equally legitimate preferences for online behavior, future research should focus on the causes of such divides and not only on consequences.

Notes

  • 1

      Gunkel's (2003) critical appraisal of the phrase “digital divide” provides a helpful overview of its evolution and various uses.

About the Authors

Steve Jones is Professor of Communication and Associate Dean for Liberal Arts & Sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago. His research interests include the social consequences of new media, media history, popular music studies and college students’ uses of media.

Address: 1007 W Harrison Street, Behavioral Sciences Building 1140, MC132 Chicago IL 60607.

Email: sjones@uic.edu

Camille Johnson-Yale is a visiting lecturer in the department of Communication at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Her research interests include media industries, communication technologies, and processes of cultural production.

Address: 1007 W Harrison Street, Behavioral Sciences Building 1140, MC132 Chicago IL 60607.

Email: ckjohnsn@illinois.edu

Sarah Millermaier is a Master's candidate in the Department of Communication at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Address: 1007 W Harrison Street, Behavioral Sciences Building 1140, MC132 Chicago IL 60607.

Email: smille32@uic.edu

Francisco Seoane Pérez is a PhD candidate at the Institute of Communications Studies, University of Leeds. His doctoral research is concerned with the so-called European communication gap. His area of expertise is political communication, in particular the role of journalism in democracies and the new avenues for political engagement opened by information and communication technologies.

Address: Institute of Communications Studies, University of Leeds, Houldsworth Building, 3rd Floor, Leeds, LS2 9JT, United Kingdom.

Email: icsfsp@leeds.ac.uk

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