Latinos More Likely Than Whites to Own Smartphones, Says Pew Report

PHOTO: A woman video chats with another woman on a smartphone.Bernhard Lang/Getty Images
A woman video chats with another woman on a smartphone.

The digital divide between Latinos and whites is about half of what it was only a few years ago, with Latinos catching up significantly.

According to a survey released Thursday by the Pew Hispanic Center, the number of Hispanics who say they use the Internet at least occasionally increased 14 points, to 78 percent, from 2009 to 2012. Whites still use the Internet at a higher rate--87 percent in 2012--but that number is up only slightly from where it was in 2009.

Similarly, the number of Hispanics who say they own a cellphone has gone up by 10 points, to 86 percent. Among whites, the number who own a cellphone has actually decreased two points, to 84 percent, since 2009.

Some of that may have to do with the fact that the numbers were already higher for whites in 2009, so there was less room for growth. At some point there may be a saturation level, said Aaron Smith, a senior researcher with the Pew Research Center. He noted, however, that it's difficult to determine exactly where that saturation point is.

"At a certain level, you do reach a point where low-hanging fruits have been converted, and what's left are people who may have more challenges in terms of digital literacy or a lack of interest," Smith said.

According to Pew, most of the increase is among Latinos who are foreign-born and primarily speak Spanish rather than English. So not only has the gap in technology use decreased between Latinos and whites, it has decreased within the Latino community.

As with other demographics, however, the gap hasn't disappeared altogether. Internet use is highest among young Latinos with higher incomes who speak English, have at least some college education and were born in the United States. It is lowest among older Latinos who speak mostly Spanish and who have less than a high school education. In other words, age is a huge determining factor.

The same demographics apply to which Hispanics access the Internet through a smartphone, and which own a laptop or desktop computer. Age and English-dominance also matter the most when it comes to the use of social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter, with income playing less of a role.

Even when Latinos are bilingual, most say they use English on social networking sites. A full 60 percent of Latino social-media users say they mostly or only use English, while only 29 percent say they mostly or only use Spanish.

Latinos are also actually more likely than whites, and about as likely as blacks, to own a smartphone. And they are more likely to access the Internet from their mobile devices than whites. Some of that has to do with the fact that Latinos are generally younger than whites, and younger people tend to be more familiar with or comfortable using new technology, regardless of ethnicity or race.

As Pew notes, the rate of smartphone ownership among Latinos and whites in the 18 to 29 age bracket is exactly the same: 66 percent. But while a slightly higher percentage of whites than Latinos above 65 own a smartphone, a higher percentage of Latinos tend to be younger, so the percentage of Hispanics who own smartphones is higher.

Smith added that Latinos are also more likely to be concentrated in urban areas, and urbanites are more likely to use smartphones.

Latinos are also less likely--by more than 10 points--to own a desktop or a laptop computer than whites, making them less likely to have easy access to a computer and more likely to turn to a smartphone to go online. Only 72 percent of Latinos say they own a computer, compared to 83 percent of whites.

While he cautioned that it's "hard to tease out people's motivations," Smith said that more people list convenience as a reason for smartphone use than lack of access to a laptop or desktop, although access does play a role.

In addition, as the use of digital technology has increased, far fewer people use landline telephones than even just a few years ago.

The share of Hispanics who live in a cellphone-only home increased dramatically between 2004 and 2012. Only six percent of Hispanics fit into that category nine years ago, compared with 47 percent in 2012. Only 30 percent of whites lived in cellphone-only households in 2012.