Teen lives depend on the Internet. What happens when they can’t afford it?

The Screen Age

The Disconnected

Teen lives and futures depend on the Internet. What happens when they can’t afford it?

Published on September 6, 2016

The other kids are talking about their phones again, and she is trying not to listen.

She likes it here, in the big room at the library in Northwest Washington where she comes twice a week for her after-school youth program. In this space, 15-year-old DJ knows she can be honest, even when she feels different — like she does now, as the teens sitting around her gaze at their smartphone screens and commiserate over the frustration of dying batteries.

Editor's note: To protect her privacy, The Washington Post is identifying DJ only by her initials and her mother by her middle name.

DJ focuses instead on the art project in her hands, a paper model of BB-8, the spherical  “Star Wars” robot. She picks up a pair of scissors, her dark eyes squinting behind her black-rimmed glasses, and carefully cuts along the dotted line.

“You know when your phone —” one boy begins, and now DJ looks up.

“I don’t have a phone,” she says.

“Don’t keep rubbing it in,” Dia Bui, the program coordinator, tells the boy.

The program technically ended 15 minutes ago, at 6 p.m., but DJ isn’t in a hurry to leave. She gets lonely at home, she says. Her mother often has to work late, and her brothers are often busy with their friends. So DJ usually retreats to her small bedroom, hidden behind a floor-length curtain, where she curls up on a bed strewn with clothes and piled high with stuffed animals.

“It’s sad, sometimes,” she says, “when I’m left alone with my thoughts.”

There is no beeping or buzzing, no message notifications to answer or apps to preoccupy her. At a time when many parents agonize over their kids’ consumption of social media — fretting over the hours spent playing games and posting Instagrams and incessantly texting — DJ represents the flip side: teens who can’t afford phones or computers and don’t have reliable WiFi at home.

They are the outliers. The Pew Research Center reports that 88 percent of all American teens ages 13 to 17 own or have access to a cellphone, and most — 73 percent — have smartphones. Technology that was once considered a luxury is now viewed as necessity.

WASHINGTON, DC - AUGUST 16: D.J. uses a computer at Mount Pleasant Neighborhood Library on Tuesday August 16, 2016 in Washington, DC. She does not have the electronic devices that many of her peers have. (Photo by Matt McClain/ The Washington Post)

D.J. uses a computer at a local library.

But for some low-income families like DJ’s, these devices are still out of reach. Not having a phone or a computer compounds her other worries: the sense of isolation from her classmates, the struggle to keep up at school, the difficulty of finding resources that might offer academic or emotional help.

She finds other ways to occupy herself. “I started using my sketchbook more,” DJ says as she walks home along shaded streets. “But my teacher asks us to draw from references, to use the Internet to look up things to draw, and I can’t.”

Someday, she wants to go to a great college, to become a famous artist, to make a lot of money and provide for a family. But lately, she hasn’t been doing her homework, because almost all of it is online, and she can’t get online at home. She’s been missing her childhood friends, the ones who moved away from the District before high school started. She used to talk to them all the time over text and Snapchat, before her iPhone broke.

The phone was a long-awaited Christmas present from DJ’s mother, Lidia. For months, it was DJ’s lifeline — but then the battery suddenly stopped charging, and the screen went dark.

Percentage of teens who don’t have a cell phone, by race

12%

White/non-Hispanic

8%

Black/non-Hispanic

14%

Hispanic

Source: Pew Research Center

Lidia, a 33-year-old single mother who came to the United States from Guatemala when she was 16, works at a salon six days a week to support DJ and her two brothers. Replacing the phone wasn’t an option.

“It’s expensive,” Lidia says, again, after DJ arrives at their ground-level apartment and curls up on the couch beside her. Lidia nudges her daughter playfully. “Even your mom can’t get a new phone.”

DJ nods. “I know.”

Lidia shakes her head. The heel of her sandal taps against the parquet floor. She hears what her kids keep telling her — that they need a computer at home, that they feel left out when they can’t talk to their friends. “When we were young, we didn’t have those things,” she says.

“But now it’s different,” DJ says, touching her mother’s arm. “Because everybody has technology, and then you’re the one person left out.”

WASHINGTON, DC - AUGUST 14: D.J. poses for a portrait at her home on Sunday August 14, 2016 in Washington, DC. She does not have the electronic devices that many of her peers have. (Photo by Matt McClain/ The Washington Post)

D.J. poses for a portrait at her home.

The effect on the few who remain technologically disconnected has never been more profound — especially for the teens, like DJ, who are part of the most digitally defined generation in human history. Almost everything they need exists in cyberspace: Hard-copy workbooks have been replaced by online libraries. Homework assignments and practice exercises are posted to school websites. Instead of meeting up in the library for study groups, students collaborate remotely through cloud applications. Test preparation, college applications, employment and internship opportunities — all of it is online.

Families are adapting to this new reality, and the digital divide between those who can and cannot afford technology is narrowing. This year, the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop released the first nationally representative survey of low-income parents focused on digital connectivity; it showed that 91 percent of families living below the poverty line have an Internet connection at home.

But many of those households remain “under-connected,” meaning their Internet access is inconsistent at best, and often available only through a phone. This is the case in DJ’s home, where other utility bills frequently take priority over WiFi, and the three siblings sometimes share one smartphone to do homework. The survey also found that families headed by Hispanic immigrants, like DJ’s mother, are the least connected of all low- and moderate-income American families.

Students without home access can turn to school computer labs or public libraries, which might mean staying late after class, riding public transportation alone, waiting in line for a computer or grappling with a slow, overtaxed connection. This might not seem like such an excessive burden, except that it generally falls on the already-overwhelmed kids who are least able to bear it.

Not having a phone isn’t, in itself, a terrible thing; some families who can afford the devices prefer to keep their kids away from them. But for underprivileged teens, not having a phone or computer is just one of a myriad of challenges they face, says Mary Brown, executive director of the D.C. Promise Neighborhood Initiative. “We have children and families that don’t have access to health care, education and employment, and it’s this consistent lack of opportunity that really leads to this whole cycle of poverty.”

“Even when their phones aren’t out, kids chat about what’s going on online. And the kids without technology can’t even engage in the conversation.” Sara Kirschner, curricula and training manager

Her organization recently worked with Comcast to provide low-cost Internet connections to impoverished families in the District. “Having access to the Internet — it’s just huge, to have that at home,” she says.

For teens shut out of the social-media world their friends inhabit, the exclusion isn’t trivial; when teens can’t relate to what their peers are doing, they miss out on a basic cultural fluency.

Sara Kirschner, curricula and training manager for Higher Achievement, a national academic program for middle school students, has seen the social consequences for students who don’t have the same digital privileges as their peers.

“Even when their phones aren’t out, kids chat about what’s going on online,” she says. “And the kids without technology can’t even engage in the conversation.”

Percentage of teens with no cell phone, by household income

17%

Less than $30K

18%

$30-50K

9%

More than $75K

Source: Pew Research Center

The promise of summer is escape, a time to go away to camp or to the beach. For DJ, summer is just more time spent at home, away from her classmates, where boredom and isolation make the long days feel even longer.

But there is relief through a regional youth program called Asian American Leadership, Empowerment and Development, or AALEAD, which offers support to low-income children of color. For six weeks, DJ can count on time with friends, free meals and her first paid job — the program hired her as an intern.

During the summer session, DJ has been working with several friends on a group project, a short video documentary about gentrification in the District. The team took photos in Columbia Heights, Navy Yard and Chinatown, speaking to workers and residents, capturing ways the communities have changed. Then the girls recorded interviews with each other, talking about how those changes made them feel.

WASHINGTON, DC - AUGUST 16: D.J. walks with a friend to get food after they used computers at Mount Pleasant Neighborhood Library on Tuesday August 16, 2016 in Washington, DC. She does not have the electronic devices that many of her peers have. (Photo by Matt McClain/ The Washington Post)

D.J. walks with a friend to get food after they used computers at a local library.

DJ says the project has helped her understand why so many of her childhood friends have moved away: “They must have left because of gentrification.”

One sweltering morning, the team members arrive at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library, where AALEAD has reserved a row of gleaming white Apple computers for them to use to edit their footage — but the software baffles the teens, who have never used it before.

During a break in their work, Stephanie Lim, one of AALEAD’s program coordinators and mentors, asks DJ if she has time to talk. The teenager follows Lim, 27, into the vast lobby of the library, where they settle into orange plastic chairs and Lim opens her laptop. A disheveled man in a torn shirt slumps against the wall nearby, snoring softly.

“What are some of the things you would like to talk about today?” Lim asks DJ.

“About college?” DJ asks. In a matter of weeks she’ll be a high school junior.

“Sure,” Lim says. “Where do you see yourself in five years?”

DJ twists a lock of dark hair between her fingers.

“I want to go to Harvard,” she says, with a dreamy smile. “They say it’s nearly impossible, but I want to do it!”

“Okay, wow,” Lim says. “You’re going to aim high!”

“I don’t know anything about how to apply for college,” DJ says. “I know it’s a lot of money. Where am I gonna get that from?”

Lim nods. She was also the first generation in her family to go to college, she tells DJ, and students like them are more likely to struggle with certain issues, including money. “There’s a lot to adjust to,” Lim says. “A new social setting, and people who grew up very differently from you.”

DJ’s expression turns somber. “Oh. Yeah.”

“This is not to scare you,” Lim says. “How is school going?”

DJ shrugs. “My GPA is like a 2.8 or something, but that’s without trying.” She looks at the table. “I don’t usually do my homework.”

“Okay,” Lim says, typing notes. “What do you think you need in order to do your homework consistently?”

DJ is quiet. The answer to the question is complicated; a home computer isn’t going to happen. She is afraid of riding the bus by herself. And her mother doesn’t like her to go out in their neighborhood alone, so DJ will visit the library only with a friend. She can’t do her online homework on her phone, like she used to.

She presses her fingers to her temple and sighs.

“I don’t know,” she says.

WASHINGTON, DC - AUGUST 14: D.J. is seen at her home on Sunday August 14, 2016 in Washington, DC. She does not have the electronic devices that many of her peers have. (Photo by Matt McClain/ The Washington Post)

D.J. is seen at her home.

DJ says she feels “different” because she doesn’t have a phone, but the truth is she felt different even when she did have one. At her high school across town, she is among a minority of students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, and many of her classmates are from wealthier neighborhoods. On Instagram, she watched their lives unspool in an endless feed of picture-perfect moments, flawless selfies and luxurious vacations. The privilege DJ saw every day in class followed her home in her pocket.

“Instagram is for people with interesting lives,” she says, sitting on her couch on a summer Sunday. “I didn’t think my life was so interesting, to put it out there like that.” She posted a selfie only once, she says, and took it down a few hours later.

She found herself obsessing over how many followers she had, comparing the number with her friends’ accounts. She started noticing when her friends unfollowed her, mirroring her shrinking social circle. Five months after she added the app, she deleted it.

“Instagram is for people with interesting lives. It made me feel bad about myself.” DJ

“I was afraid people would really look at me and judge me,” she says. “It made me feel bad about myself.”

She misses other apps, the ones that offered an escape. She loved the whimsical filters on Snapchat, how with the flick of her finger she could become a goddess with flowers in her hair.

But she never did get used to seeing herself on a screen. So when her group video project is played at a local coffee shop, as part of a celebration at the end of AALEAD’s summer session, DJ is excited and proud but also a little nervous. Dozens of teens and staff members have gathered to recognize the students and applaud their work. All those people will be watching her on video, in the interview where she talked about what life is like in her city.

Percentage of families with no Internet access, by race

10%

Immigrant Hispanic

7%

U.S.-born Hispanic

5%

White

1%

Black

Source: Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop

“It’s a little embarrassing,” DJ says, shouting to be heard over dance music pulsing through the nearby loudspeakers. “I wasn’t looking my best that day.”

When the music stops and the film starts playing, DJ quickly retreats to the second floor of the cafe, leaning against the railing as she gazes down on the crowd below. Her own face stares back at her from the screen against the wall.

Off camera, an interviewer asks: Are there opportunities for youth in your community?

DJ’s answer is immediate and absolute.

“No,” she hears herself say. “Everything costs money.”

SJ Adams, 50, from North Dakota

I work in education and I’ve seen both sides of the fence. The good side of technology allows kids to learn in a different setting and those with disabilities a way to learn. It is too often that you see the results of the dark side of technology. The obsession with screens has lead to a meaner generation who have no remorse for their actions, shorter attention spans, lack of social interaction, and the belief they can get away with it online. The flip side is seeing teachers using their phones and texting in the classroom. I’ve seen this generation go after adults by posting and mocking them on social media. Perhaps, they see their parents doing it online and they see it as acceptable. It’s sad when you go to a coffee shop to visit or people watch and see the obsession with a small screen reflecting back to you even with they are with another person. I think education about technology needs to start at home with the parents. Kids need to be taught to interact with one another by playing and learning new things. Internet fails from time to time and you need to learn things that don’t include electronics.

Jessica Harris, 30, from Washington DC

I’m a millennial, actually, but I work with Gen Z-ers. I taught high school for five years and now train leaders in how to help Gen Z-ers. It’s a different world, even from mine. Cell phones weren’t a big thing when I was a teen/young adult (and they certainly weren’t smart phones!) but I still got wrapped up in the online world — spending hours watching porn and cybering (chat room sex- so 90s). I started an online relationship via chat room with a guy and eventually sent him my pictures. One of the biggest regrets of my life. Now, I work with Gen Z-ers, with specific emphasis on girls who are wrapped up in online relationships or sexting. What I find the most stunning is how they feel it’s real. They feel the relationships they have online are real. They are drawn to them more than relationships in real life — even friendships! Take away their tech and it’s like you’ve locked them in a room with no human interaction. My brother, who is four years younger, is really into gaming. He wasn’t interacting with the family so my mom threatened to kick him out. He said, “That’s fine! Whatever! My friends online will help me. I’ll just go live with them!” He let his online friends know that his mom was kicking him out and asked if he could crash at one of their places and they all said no. That’s when it dawned on him: “These people aren’t really friends.” For all we know they weren’t really real.

Susan Harvey, 62, from Huntington, NY

Technology is an essential part of life today and will become even more seamless and ubiquitous in the future. Even very young children inherently understand this as the way it is. We often speak with pride on their innate knowledge of how to use technology and make it work for them. But we don’t counter this with life’s wisdom of how every keystroke counts and is stored somewhere and may be irretrievable. They need to grasp the fundamentals of personal privacy and the damage that can be done to them now and in the future by what they “publish” often just by being in the wrong place at the wrong time with identifying technology. There is no such thing in today’s world as “confidential”. These truths are not self-evident nor are they easy for anyone to understand. This does not make technology evil, but always ahead of our ability to control it.

Sierra Morgan, 51, from Lansing, Mi.

With Gen Z, I have seen too many kids and young adults (13-18) put in situations that they were not prepared for because of too much access to technology. Coupled with their parents lack of adulthood training, their lives meld into what mass marketers tell them it should be. Dating in middle school and a camera phone before 18, not in my house. Social media has single handedly done more to destroy the better part of two generations now than just about anything I have seen in my life. The notion that we must post every tiny detail of our lives to be cool is being driven by mass marketers getting as much free data so they can better sell us stuff. Gen Z does not seem to have clear lines between the virtual and real world and for them, actions seem to never have consequences. Helicopter parents are always there to save them from themselves. The parents rely far too much on schools to parent and protect their children. If this would have been my daughter, she would have been forced to go to school and face the consequences from day one. I also would have had a stern discussion with the young man’s parents. If nothing came of it, then the police would have been called to deal with the young man and his parents. The school has no responsibility to adjudicate this nor to fix it. If this were my son, he would be dealing directly with law enforcement for sharing the young woman’s picture. He was raised knowing actions had consequences and as a black man, those consequences were going to be worse for him than they were for his white friends. My son is a Gen X/Millennial but I am in graduate school and am surrounded by Millennial/Gen Zers. They are a whole different species of human beings.

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About the series

The kids of Generation Z have never known a world without smartphones and social media. The Washington Post examines what it means to grow up in an era where learning, flirting and hanging out all happens on screens.