Closing the online gap in America will require everything we’ve got, including video game-playing teenagers.
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Gisel Guerrero Zavala is a 15-year-old in El Paso who loves video games and computer programming. She is also playing a role in trying to close the divide between two Americas: those who are always online and the millions who lack easy access to the internet or are uncomfortable with technology.
Gigi, as she is known, participated this year in a program with 4-H, the 120-year-old youth development organization that taps young people interested in technology to help solve problems in their communities and to teach digital skills.
A half dozen or so times during the past school year, Gigi’s mother picked her up after class for sessions at a public library where she coached people on creating email addresses, checking their inboxes, spotting potential internet scams and communicating professionally online.
The pandemic created a sense of urgency about bringing internet access to more people and empowering them to use technology as a necessity of modern life. As with any structural problem, closing the online gap will require technical, financial, social and personal changes, both large and small.
Last year’s federal infrastructure law, which included tens of billions of dollars for state and local projects to expand internet access, was a sweeping effort. 4-H Tech Changemakers, the program in which Gigi participated, is intentionally small-scale.
Gigi said that she was motivated to help people in her hometown become more confident online but that she also wanted to challenge herself by taking on a leadership role.
“I didn’t want to be in the background anymore,” Gigi told me in January before her presentations started.
To prepare for the library sessions this past school year, Gigi spent hours at home, honing a PowerPoint presentation and rehearsing what she planned to say in English and Spanish with help from her family members. She didn’t have as much time to devote to a team competing against other schools in League of Legends, the competitive video game.
She said that some of the attendees were taken aback at being taught by a teen but that they were also grateful. Gigi said she was surprised that some people didn’t seem comfortable even turning on a computer. After one of her presentations, a man who said he was starting his own business thanked Gigi for advice that he planned to use to reach his customers by email.
Gigi taught more than 400 people during the digital skills sessions, representatives for 4-H told me. The organization said that 325 teens were involved in Tech Changemakers program during the past school year and reached 37,000 adults. More programs are planned for the coming school year.
In conversations over the past year with program participants, I’ve been struck by a couple of aspects of 4-H’s approach to America’s digital divide.
First, the 4-H program recognizes that internet access is necessary but not sufficient to empower digital citizens. And second, the program shows that bringing more people online in America can be profound both for those trying to learn and for those with digital skills like Gigi’s.
The 4-H program is not a silver bullet. Nothing is. But one-to-one human connections can matter.
Last year, I spoke to Lorrie Barron, who co-owns Wildwood Berry and Produce in Charlotte County, Va. She had help from 4-H participants in setting up a Facebook page to take orders from farmers’ market shoppers. Barron said that she wasn’t very comfortable with computers and had an easier time learning when the teens walked her through the steps. A group of 4-H participants also flew drones to map the farm’s land.
The area, about 90 miles southwest of Richmond, used to be dominated by tobacco farms. As it is in some other rural areas in the United States, internet access is spotty or expensive, and Barron told me that she was worried about her family and community being left behind because of unaffordable or unavailable internet access.
When I asked Barron what she wanted done if she could wave a magic wand, she said: “They need to put broadband in, and it needs to be accessible to every single student in their homes.”
In El Paso County, where Gigi lives, nearly half of households are not using the internet at speeds that the U.S. government considers a baseline for fast internet service, according to data compiled by Microsoft and BroadbandNow. A survey by a local group found similar figures, although there are no reliable official numbers on internet access gaps in the United States. About 18 percent of people in El Paso County live below the federal poverty line, the Census Bureau estimates.
4-H is better known for its agrarian origins, but the organization has also made closing the digital divide part of its mission to help young people and their communities. That goal, the organization says, demands smarter policies to connect people and to address all of the barriers to digital life that individuals face, including unfamiliarity with technology.
“This is something that Americans are united on,” Jennifer Sirangelo, the president and chief executive of the National 4-H Council, told me. “Young people are part of the solution. How can we mobilize them as a country?”
Gigi said that she came away feeling more confident in her abilities and proud that she helped people.
“I now understand that my contributions matter,” she said.
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One Solution to the Digital Divide: Teens – The New York Times