IT Infrastructure

African-American Teens Missing Out on Digital Innovation

By Benjamin Herold — November 15, 2016 2 min read
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Young African-Americans embrace computers as integral to their futures, but they may be missing out on key opportunities to learn to code, develop apps and software, and innovate with technology, concludes a new national survey.

“This is a group of young people who are very confident about their technology use and very comfortable with its importance in their lives,” said Kevin A. Clark, a professor of learning technologies and the director of the Center for Digital Media Innovation and Diversity at George Mason University in Manassas, Va. “What I think happens sometimes is that educators and schools underestimate that.”

Clark, Arizona State University women and gender studies professor Kimberly A. Scott, and consultant Victoria J. Rideout are the authors behind “The Digital Lives of African American Tweens, Teens, and Parents: Innovating and Learning with Technology.” The study, released this month, is based on a national survey of more than 1,000 pairs of African-American teenagers and their parents, as well as focus groups. The emphasis was primarily on young people’s use of computers and the internet outside of school.

The Researchers


Professor, Division of Learning Technologies
Director, Center for Digital Media
Innovation and Diversity
George Mason University


Associate Professor, Women and Gender Studies
Founder/Executive Director, Center for Gender
Equity in Science and Technology
Arizona State University

The researchers found that young African-Americans are passionate about their smartphones. Eighty percent of survey respondents described them as “very important” to their everyday lives. “It’s their immediate connection to everyone and everything—always on, always with them, and easy to use,” the report says.

But when it comes to completing schoolwork or preparing college or job applications, young African-Americans reported strong preferences for computers over mobile devices, an important insight for school administrators weighing whether to buy laptops or tablets for their schools. And while more than three-fourths of survey respondents said they used a computer or mobile device to edit pictures and videos and watch online tutorials, fewer than 1 in 5 said the same about creating an app or website or writing computer code themselves.

The researchers attributed those disparities to a lack of exposure and opportunity, both inside and outside of school.

At home, they found, African-American children from low-income households, as well as those whose parents do not have a college degree, were less likely than their peers to report learning about computers from their friends or fathers. African-American parents also reported being far more likely to restrict computer and internet usage for girls compared with boys.

“What schools can take away from this is that African-American parents are very much engaged and concerned about their children,” said Scott of Arizona State.

“But we know that [African-American] girls are not provided the same opportunities to play, to innovate, and to use computational thinking skills, and that may cause a problem.”

Takeaway: Young African-Americans frequently use technology to learn and create content, but far fewer write their own code.

Takeaway: “Young people’s passion for their phones was obvious,” the researchers conclude.

Takeaway: The vast majority of young African-Americans prefer computers to mobile devices for tasks related to school and career preparation

Takeaway: African-American parents are substantially more likely to restrict girls’ than boys’ computer and internet use.

A version of this article appeared in the November 16, 2016 edition of Education Week as Eager to Innovate: African-American Teenagers and Technology


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