Language and Citizenship May Contribute to Low Internet Use Among Hispanics

ntialogoNTIA has long noted disparities in Internet use based on race and ethnicity, among other demographics. While the United States has made great strides in recent years to close the digital divide, the latest NTIA data on Internet and computer use suggest that gaps remain among certain groups.

While 75.4 percent of White non-Hispanics, 75.3 percent of Asian American non-Hispanics, and 64 percent of African American non-Hispanics reported using the Internet in 2013, only 61 percent of Hispanics were online. Historically, Hispanics have had lower levels of Internet use than their peers, and while the gap has narrowed to some extent, Hispanics consistently reported the lowest levels of Internet use of any racial or ethnic group. According to Census Bureau estimates, the Hispanic population is young and growing quickly, underscoring the need to address digital inclusion challenges. The Hispanic population has grown from 14.5 million in 1980 to 55.4 million as of 2014. And the median age among Hispanics in 2014 was 29—14 years younger than non-Hispanic Whites and four years younger than African Americans. Language barriers and citizenship considerations may be associated with differing levels of Internet use and help explain this dimension of the digital divide.

The data, collected for NTIA as part of the U.S. Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey in July 2013, show that Hispanics made significant progress in Internet adoption compared with previous years. In 2011, just over half of Hispanics (54.4 percent) used the Internet. That number rose to 61 percent in 2013, but that still left more than a third of the Hispanic population offline. In comparison, Internet use by all Americans rose from 69.7 percent to 71.4 percent between 2011 and 2013. Low Internet use in the Hispanic community continues to be a major concern, although adoption is growing more rapidly for this group than the country as a whole. Data suggest that more needs to be done to address Internet use barriers related to language and citizenship.

Understanding low Internet use in the Hispanic community is important for a variety of reasons. As we identified in previous research, the Internet allows users to look for jobs, become civically engaged, and keep in touch with friends, family, and colleagues. The Hispanic community faces some key challenges:

  • July 2013 data reveal disparities in Internet use based on citizenship status (see Figure 1). More specifically, persons who were born in the United States were 10 percentage points more likely to use the Internet than foreign-born non-citizens (72.5 percent compared to 62 percent).
  • Additionally, persons living in households where Spanish is the only language spoken were far less likely to use the Internet (see Figure 2). The difference in home Internet use between persons living in households where Spanish is the only language spoken by adults and those in other households was nearly 30 percentage points.

 Even when holding a range of demographic factors constant, including family income, education, age, race, sex, disability status, employment status, the presence of school-age children at home, population density, and region, statistical modeling suggests that language barriers and non-citizenship are negative indicators of Internet use.

Since 2010, the negative association between non-citizen status and Internet use has decreased by half, from approximately 12 percentage points in 2010 to 6 percentage points in 2013. This change, as well as smaller changes in other areas, suggests that Hispanics and others may be gradually overcoming historic barriers to Internet use.

Our analysis suggests that citizenship issues and language barriers may help explain why Hispanics have historically faced a particularly large digital divide. As part of NTIA’s broadband grant program funded by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, NTIA worked to address this problem by providing grants to groups that provide digital literacy courses and Internet access in Hispanic areas. These include the San Francisco-based Mission Economic Development Agency (MEDA), which collaborated with a network of Latino economic development agencies to create public computer centers across the country and provide basic and specialized training in Spanish for low-income Latino entrepreneurs to help them start and grow their businesses. MEDA also funded a Spanish-language call-in radio program designed to provide a forum for Latino entrepreneurs to learn about the use of the Internet to promote their businesses and how to troubleshoot typical problems. The program is an example of how to promote the relevance of broadband to a targeted community.

Despite the notable progress that has been made in addressing the digital divide, Hispanics still confront formidable barriers to Internet use that should prompt further attention from policy makers and the private sector. Among the new steps NTIA is taking on this front include working with the General Services Administration to develop awareness-building content in English and Spanish to promote the benefits of broadband, which was one of the recommendations from the White House’s Broadband Opportunity Council. NTIA is also responsible for developing a Broadband Research Agenda (in collaboration with the National Science Foundation), which may include a focus on targeting research to determine how best to reach vulnerable populations such as Hispanics.

Author: John B. Morris,

Associate Administrator of the Office Policy Analysis and Development