Rural Youth and Digital Access


Published: February 11, 2014 by Mary Ann Harlan

In 2011 95% of teens reported using the Internet on a daily basis (Lenhart, Madden, Smith, Purcell, & Rainie, 2011). Based on this statistic it is difficult to say that there is still an access gap for teens that wish to access the Internet (Palfrey & Gasser, 2008). This is not however to suggest that access is equitable. During the years 2008-2011 my interviews with teens in a rural area indicated there are barriers to participation, and quality of access was a significant barrier.

The primary access issue in rural areas is broadband Internet, the type of connection necessary to engage in participatory practices that include media. The US Census reports that 98% of homes have access to broadband with 3 Mbps download and 768 kbps upload (U.S. broadband availability June 2010- June 2012, 2013). This only allows for the sending of email or basic web surfing, as well as uploading pictures and access websites. E-learning for instance is not practical.

The National Telecommunications and Information Administration report indicates that in very rural areas, those outside metro areas, 65 percent of homes relied on basic wired services (Beede & Neville, 2013). This is a more nuanced understanding of rural, and references the rural communities in which I am interested. Looking closer at this data, it also indicates that only 41 percent of rural areas have access to broadband speeds of 25 Mpbs. Only 39.7 percent of rural homes have access to broadband via cable, and 7.5% have access via optical fiber, which offers the most consistent and fastest access (Beede & Neville, 2013). This impacts the ability to participate in more media based activities.

While teens access the Internet at school, usage at school is monitored, and filtered. In 2012 the American Association of School Libraries presented data that indicated that 88% of schools blocked social networking sites, and 66% of schools blocked video services. 72 percent of schools reported having to wait 24 hours or more to have a site unblocked (AASL executive summary: Filtering in schools, 2012). Filtering may have a bigger impact on rural youth who rely on school for broadband access.

Additionally rural youth, particularly those in very rural communities are forced to contend with transportation issues. School buses may be the only form of transportation and in some districts in very rural areas can travel up to one hour each way from home to school. This requires youth to leave school immediately at the end of the day restricting access to both school and community sponsored after – school activities. This is particularly striking in that it limits youth’s access to expert mentors who provide support for learning new digital skills.

It is important to consider the experiences of rural teens in participating in digital communities. Participation allows youth to engage in practice, to develop understandings of communities, receive mentoring, and develop skills (Harlan, 2012). However this may look different in very rural communities. Below is an instructive example from my research with teen content creators.

While investigating the information practices of teens in content creating and sharing communities such as DeviantArt or SoundCloud I interviewed 11 teens in a rural county in Northern California. Teens who lived “in town” had high speed access to the Internet, as well as access to after-school programs run both through the school, and through after school programs designed to support digital media making. However the teens that lived “out there” had significantly less access.

Xeda was a teen that lived “in the boondocks”. She had been participating in social networking for several years, having found online communities that shared her interest. This was important to her, as it was how she spent afternoons after school. She was reliant on school transportation, and had to leave school within the first fifteen minutes of the final bell. At home the social networks she participated in were her social activity. By the time of her interview she was a prolific sharer of her art on DeviantArt as well as a frequent commenter on other’s art work, including those she interacted with at school and those she knew only through DeviantArt. However sharing was not an easy technical process for her. Although she had both a scanner and digital camera at home, she could not load her artwork on DeviantArt from her home desktop. Xeda only had access to a dial-up connection, which made it impossible to load large jpg files, even those that had been compressed. In order to post art on DeviantArt it was necessary to take a photo on her camera, and then use her lunch hour in the Art lab to load the pictures onto her profile.

While Xeda was fortunate to have an Art teacher who allowed her to download, and upload personal photos of her artwork on a school machine this may not be the case for many teens facing the same limitation of access. School filters often prevent students from participation, particularly for social network sites. For instance, on the campus that Xeda attended it took several requests, and extensive meetings to unblock DeviantArt, Xeda’s site of choice. A strong adult advocate was necessary to provide access. While the culture and school attitude towards filtering has shifted there are still environments in which sites that promote artistic sharing such as DeviantArt, SoundCloud, still are blocked from overly- aggressive filtering policies. Xeda was one of the 95% of teens using the Internet each day, but her access was limited at home due to broadband limitations and at school due to filtering limitations.

Perhaps the approach would be to use mobile devices. After all, many of the teens living “out there” have smart phones. This too has limitations. For instance, Xeda would not have had strong cell service in her area. During the time I was interviewing teens I overheard a teen explaining that she could not access the Internet because her area had no service, nor could she use her phone to text her friends because her home was not within a cellular service area.

Additionally teens that live beyond town limits also face transportation difficulties. Xeda attended school in one town. The after-school programs focused on digital media were in a larger town 10 miles away. Public transportation was available but required 30 min each way. Additionally it required significant coordination to get home, since public transportation did not travel to Xeda’s area. While she was able to access an after-school program it was not until her peer group was of driving age and could provide rides that she was able to consider not using school transportation in order to more fully participate in media making activities. Recent policies related to teen driving meant that friends who provided rides were essentially breaking a law.

Xeda was fortunate in the short amount of transportation time. Other teens at her school traveled up to one hour each way on a bus every day. They arrived on campus at 7:30 am and left at 4 pm and had little time during the school day to pursue personal interests, whether it was art, media making, drama, music, or athletics.

Barriers to access, such as slow Internet, or lack of access to after school programs that could provide access and mentorship, impact how teens develop participatory practices. Which begs the questions: what are the digital participatory practices of rural teens? How do they compensate for access difficulties? What are the programs that can help rural teens develop digital participation skills? Teens will potentially move on from their communities, we should be considering how to prepare rural teens to participate fully in literacy practices of the 21st Century.

AASL executive summary: Filtering in schools. (2012). Chicago: American Association of School Librarians.

Beede, D., & Neville, A. (2013). Broadband availability beyond the rural/urban divide Broadband Brief. Washington D.C.: National Telecommunications and Information Adminsitration.

Harlan, M. A. (2012). Information practices of teen content creators: The intersection of action and experiences. PhD, Queensland University of Technology, Queensland, Aus.

Lenhart, A., Madden, M., Smith, A., Purcell, K., & Rainie, L. (2011). Teens, kindness and cruelty on social network sites. Retrieved from

Palfrey, J., & Gasser, U. (2008). Born digital: Understanding the first generation of digital natives. New York, NY: Basic Books.

U.S. broadband availability June 2010- June 2012. (2013). Washington D.C.: National Telecommunications and Information Adminsitration.


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