Kids Who Have Less, May Help Their Parents Get Online More

By Gabrielle Jonas on January 24, 2014 11:36 AM EST

In the new Cyber-Economy, Many Parents need their Children's Assistance
Children from lower-income families are more likely to help their parents with smart phones, personal computers and negotiating the Web in general, a new study suggests. (Photo: Courtesy of Shutterstock)

To excel at her job, Sara, a 50-year-old hairstylist in Puente Alto, a lower-middle income district in Santiago, Chile, had to learn more about hair styles from the Internet, but didn't know how to get online. Her 22-year-old son and 18-year-old daughter guided her through the daunting digital world. "The kids encouraged me to do it," Sara told journalist Teresa Correa, author of the article, "Bottom-Up Technology Transmission Within Families" appearing in the Journal of Communication Friday. "'Mom, do it, you can do it,' they used to say." Although Sara took a brief training session to overcome her fears of technology, she relied on her 18-year-old as her primary guide into cyberspace. "My daughter has been my teacher," she told Correa. "I always ask her. She also created me a Facebook page and taught me how to use it. Now, I am in contact with a few well-known hairstylists who accepted me as a friend. We can share stuff about work.'"

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Correa, who's an assistant professor at the Universidad Diego Portales School of Journalism, wanted to explore to what extent youths influence the digital media learning process of their parents or guardians in Chile, where, as of 2011, an estimated 46.8 percent of households owned a computer and 58 percent of the population were surfing the Web. "Although these penetration rates are among the highest in Latin America," Correa wrote, "there are still wide gaps gauging by age and socioeconomic status." By interviewing 14 groups of 12- to 18-year-old children and their parents, and surveying 251 parents and 381 students about their computer, mobile phone, and Internet co-use, Correa set out to find out how much the younger generation was educating the older one on cyberspace. She found that between 30 percent and 40 percent of parents were taught how to use the computer and how to access the Internet by their children. 

"The younger generation may represent a ray of optimism for including older generations in the digital environment," Correa wrote. She found that the poorer the family, the more likely the children were going to help their parents or guardians acclimate to cyberspace. That's following a long tradition of the role children have played in low-income, immigrant families, she said, "where children act as links between their families and the new environment," the new environment here being that of the Internet and smart phones. Furthermore, she noted, scholars have suggested that young people from disadvantaged environments have more egalitarian parent-child relationships and assume adult responsibilities at younger ages than children from more privileged backgrounds. 

Although Correa did find that children from privileged classes also taught their parents about technology, "it was more evident and meaningful among the lower classes." This was partly because fathers in middle- and upper- socioeconomic families were less receptive to their children's efforts to teach them than fathers in lower-income families. Like Sara, though, lower-income mothers were very receptive to being taught by their children, as it could mean reaping the benefits of the Internet economy. One such mother, the head of her household, but without a computer at home, got technology lessons from her son, who used the the cyber cafe to do homework. He also described himself as having lower technology skills than his classmates. "Despite this tech-poor environment," wrote Correa, "he had taught his mother how to use a cell phone, which was highly useful for her work as a sales representative for Avon Cosmetics."

The fact that this bottom-up technology transmission occurs more frequently among lower socioeconomic families, has important implications, argues Correa. Poor people usually lag behind in the adoption and usage of technology. Thus, children's external agents of socialization such as peer groups and schools may become key factors influencing youths to the extent that they may alter traditional family socialization patterns. "This result suggests that schools in lower-income areas should be especially considered in government or foundation-led intervention programs that promote usage of digital media," Correa wrote.

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