Many educators have a revolutionary notion that the low cost and popularity of smartphones will bridge the digital divide, giving voice and power to the underrepresented. But, how does this flash of smartphone popularity affect Millennials’ skills in communication and technology, especially those of low-income underrepresented teens? One would think owning a phone that connects to the internet–a phone with apps, bells, and whistles— would improve the information and communication technology (ICT) skills of a teenager, but I disagree. While it may satiate their hunger for social capital, I propose that it also starves them of voice, because it starves them of capabilities.
Smartphones and smartphone plans may be expensive, but they are far more cost effective than owning a home phone line and a cell phone line, a desktop computer and home Internet access. Although convenient, smartphones are a poor substitute for a laptop or desktop because they lack functionality. A smartphone inhibits the quality of the ICT experienced by the owner because it is principally designed for media consumption, not media production. Though they are good for capturing pictures and films, good for sharing on YouTube and Facebook, they allow for limited further editing input from the user.
What’s the difference with accessing the internet on a smartphone versus on a laptop or desktop computer? Kids with internet access at home on their desktop computers improve their ICT skills exponentially, while making and editing high-quality videos for example. They are downloading software (try doing THIS on a smartphone, or on an old library public access computer!), and teaching themselves and each other how to use it. They are making animations on their laptops, designing websites, and hosting talk shows. They are laying down 8-track songs. They are connecting with other technocratic elite as they play intellectually challenging (and RAM processor-heavy) video games. Kids with internet and computers at home are part of a community of practice that produces media, that produces opinion, that produces a voice. for those who only have smartphones, they can only consume media; their voices are drowned.
Although creative applications are becoming more prevalent, the smartphone’s functionality remains inhibitive. The fact that they are used as a less expensive substitute to owning a computer, coupled with their popularity amongst low-income minorities, further exacerbates the digital divide because it reduces the ICT skills of those who use them as their principle source of technology. Smartphones are excellent tools for media consumption, but not for media production.