Many more white children use the internet than do Hispanic and black students, according to federal data released Sept. 5–a reminder that going online is hardly a way of life for everyone.

Two of every three white students–67 percent–use the internet, but less than half of blacks and Hispanics do, according to the data. For Hispanics, the figure is 44 percent; for blacks, it’s 47 percent.

The numbers provide further proof of the important role that schools must play in helping to eliminate the so-called “digital divide” between students of different races or socio-economic backgrounds.

“This creates incredible barriers for minorities,” said Mark Lloyd, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and an analyst on how communications influence civil rights. Not using the internet “narrows their ability to even think about the kind of work they can be doing. It doesn’t prepare them for a world in which they’re going to be expected to know how to do these things.”

The new data come from the National Center for Education Statistics, an arm of the federal Education Department. They are based on a national survey of households in 2003.

Overall, 91 percent of students in nursery school through 12th grade use computers; 59 percent use the internet. Within those numbers, however, the digital divide between groups remains a national concern.

Schools have taken steps to close the gaps. Virtually all U.S. schools are connected to the internet. The gaps in internet usage between whites and minorities, though sizable, are smaller during the school day.

That’s not the case at home. Some 54 percent of white students use the internet at home, compared with 26 percent of Hispanic and 27 percent of black youngsters. Limited access at home can erode a student’s ability to research assignments, explore college scholarships, or just get comfortable going online. Among other findings: ” Household income, parent education, and whether the home has two parents all correlate with higher computer and internet use. ” Public-school students are more likely than private-school students to use both computers and the internet. ” The gender gap in computer use has all but disappeared; girls are as likely as boys to use the internet. Kids use the internet most often for completing school assignments, the new study says. But they also count on it for eMail, sending instant messages, and playing games.

The racial divide in computer usage is tied to broader problems, including poverty in black and Latino communities and even a cultural reluctance to use the internet, Lloyd said.

Among other racial groups, 58 percent of Asian-American children and 47 percent of American Indian students use the internet.

The numbers are growing for all groups of students–a bit of good news, Lloyd said. He added: “We should celebrate that, with caution. The sky is not falling. The numbers are improving. But there is still a gap, and we need to find a way to address it.”

Computer and Internet Use Among Pre-Kindergarten through Twelfth-Grade Students, by Ethnicity Percent using internet overall Percent computers at home Percent using computers at school

White 67% 78% 85%
Hispanic 44% 48% 80%
Black 47% 46% 82%
Asian 58% 74% 79%
American Indian 47% 43% 83%

(Source: “Computer and Internet Use by Students in 2003,” http://nces.ed.gov/pubsearch/pubsinfo.asp?pubid=2006065)

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