With three grandchildren, an active travel schedule and a desire to stay connected in a fast-changing digital world, 67-year-old Dolores Ratcliff last summer upgraded to a smartphone.
“I have to use a stylus with it because I can’t get my fingers to make it work properly,” said Ratcliff, who with her husband splits time between Arizona and Iowa City. “But I do a lot of mailing out of photos and looking at Facebook.”
Ratcliff also uses her Android smartphone to check the weather, text with her teenage granddaughter and unclog stalled conversations.
“We will sit around talking about something and can’t remember the name of something or someone’s age,” she said. “You just use the Google, and then you can finish the conversation.”
Experts say that smartphone use among all ages, races and populations has been rising locally and nationally, helping bridge the gap between the tech-savvy and the formerly disconnected.
In fact, new research out of the U.S. Census Bureau shows more Americans in 2011 reported being connected to the Internet than ever before, in part, thanks to the surge in smartphone use.
According to the bureau’s study, about 76 percent of U.S. households reported having a computer in 2011, compared with just 8 percent in 1984 and about 62 percent in 2003. Nearly 72 percent of households in 2011 said they access the Internet either from a home computer or other location, up from 18 percent in 1997 and 55 percent in 2003.
Census researchers say disparities in Internet use persist across racial, educational and age groups, but those differences appear to be shrinking.
In 2000, for example, the differences in household Internet use between Caucasians and both African-Americans and Hispanics was about 23 percent, according to the bureau. In 2011, the gap decreased to about 19 percent.
Smartphone use can be credited, to some degree, for those changes, experts say.
“When compared to percentages of home Internet use, smartphones appear to be leveling the Internet use disparities traditionally present for race and ethnicity groups,” according to the census report.
Iowa, with nearly 27 percent of its 3 and older population connecting to the Internet from multiple devices, is not significantly better or worse than the national average of 27 percent. Likewise, the state’s 15 percent with no computer and no connection is on par with the national average of almost 16 percent.
But Iowa did report a significantly higher percentage of smartphone users than the national average of 48 percent, according to the bureau. And Kevin Leicht, University of Iowa sociology professor and director of the Iowa Social Science Research Center, said he believes that trend “almost certainly will continue to increase.”
“I don’t know if it will be a complete substitute for actually having the Internet in your house,” Leicht said. “But it certainly will supplement that considerably.”
Libraries and community centers — like the Johnson County Senior Center — now offer classes on Internet and mobile gadget use. Leicht said the idea is to improve quality of life for everyone, regardless of age, race or education level.
“If you are looking for jobs, if you are looking for health information, if you are looking for consumer information on products or shopping for mortgage loans ... there is a lot of stuff available online,” he said. “If you are completely unconnected, you’re at a pretty serious disadvantage.”
Linda Kopping, coordinator of the Johnson County Senior Center, said the facility’s computer, Internet and gadget courses always fill up with more students than they can take. The center also offers mentoring for seniors wanting technology help, and Kopping said that program has been successful.
“People are working on getting connected,” Kopping said, adding that she sees plenty of iPads and iPhones around the grounds. “There are a lot, and it’s just beginning.”
The City of Iowa City has seen the increase in smartphone use exemplified through a shift in nuisance complaint reports. In April, the city launched a smartphone application called ICgovXpress to help improve and expedite communication over the existing complaint system.
Stan Laverman, the city’s senior housing inspector, said the response so far has been “incredible.” About 15 percent of the city’s 605 complaints since April 1 have come in through a Smartphone, he said.
“They are easier to handle because they are geotagged,” he said. “And they often are sending them in with a picture, which allows us to respond quicker.”
Erasing the connectivity gap
Thom File, with the social, economic and housing statistics division for the U.S. Census Bureau, said the newly released report shows that Internet connectivity no longer is a “yes or no proposition.”
As the rise in smartphone use indicates, plenty of people are accessing the Internet from multiple locations and multiple devices. In fact, the highly connected category captured the largest percent of people nationally.
Conversely, File said, the second highest percent of the populace fell into the non-connected category — about 16 percent of people don’t have a computer and don’t access the Internet.
“That shows that even though Americans are going online in more diverse ways, there are many Americans that are still not connected at all,” he said.
The highly connected group seems to include mostly people ages 18 and 34, who identify as Asian or Caucasian and have incomes topping $150,000. The non-connected group includes mostly people over age 65, who identify as African-American or Hispanic and make less than $25,000, according to the report.
After looking at smartphone use for the first time in 2011, File said it appears Smartphone use is helping to erase — or minimize — some of those disparities.
“Perhaps smartphone use is leveling these digital divides,” he said.
Emily Light, community outreach specialist for the Johnson County Senior Center, said she has seen that happening here in Eastern Iowa.
“Over the last few years, we have gone from having a gadget workshop once a month to now having weekly drop in sessions for people wanting to bring in Smartphones or tablets,” Light said.
Ratcliff, after learning her way around the web and mobile devices, even became a mentor to seniors who still are novices. After learning that more than 50 percent of the connected seniors live 500 miles away from their grandchildren and great grandchildren, Ratcliff said she’s planning to write a teaching unit focused on Facebook, online chat programs and other social networking sites.
“I just think that’s so important,” she said.
Exploring the Data