Electronic Journal of Sociology (2001)

ISSN: 1198 3655

Internet Use Among College Students:
Are There Differences By Race/ethnicity?

Kathleen Korgen
William Paterson University

Patricia Odell
Bryant College

Phyllis Schumacher
Bryant College


A large study of college students found that differences by race/ethnicity in use of the Internet exist even among undergraduates at Internet-accessible colleges and universities. Differences were significant for overall use and even among students owning their own computers. While presence or absence of a computer in the home of origin (and length of time, if present) strongly influenced Internet use, such factors did not account for all the differences found by race/ethnicity. Self-reported study time was also found to be strongly connected to Internet use, and this also differed significantly by race/ethnicity.


While many would rejoice at hearing that the “digital divide” is dead, even if only so that they would never have to hear that phrase again, there is no consensus that the demise of the “divide” is at hand. A few recent studies on Internet use indicate no clear gap among racial/ethnic groups’ access to and utilization of the Internet (e.g. Forrester Research, Inc 2000). However, the most recent NTIA “Falling Through the Net” study reveals that the chasm between blacks and whites and Hispanics and whites in Internet use has actually increased among Americans making less than $75,000 a year. Including households of all income levels, blacks and Hispanics are less than half as likely to use the Internet as whites (1999). This is in accordance with several other studies on Internet use and access that report a still deep divide between white and black Americans ( McConnaughey & Lader 1998, The Children’s Partnership 2000, Hoffman et al 2000 ).

Previous research indicates that computer ownership and Internet access in the home strongly influence students’ overall use of the Internet. For instance, Novak’s and Hoffman’s (1998) study, which included both high school and college students, found no gap in Internet use between black and white students who had computers in their home but found that, overall, white students are much more likely (58.9% vs. 31.1%) than black students to have used the Internet in the previous six months. Results of their most recent study (with Schlosser) also support the notion that the presence, or lack thereof, of a computer in the home is the key behind gaps in Internet use in general, and, in particular, between whites and blacks (Hoffman et al 2000).

There are still major differences between the numbers of white and black and white and Hispanic households with computers and Internet access (NPR/Kaiser/Kennedy School April, 2000). While 47% of whites own computers, only 23.2% of blacks and 25.5% of Hispanic household have computers (NTIA 1999). According to the existing research, this gap in home access to the Internet remains the central impediment to the narrowing of the “digital divide.” The racial implications of the influence of home computers on Internet use is evident in the fall 1998 HERI survey which revealed that while 80.1 percent of freshman at private universities reported using email during their senior year in high school, only 41.4 percent of freshman at public black colleges stated that they had made similar use of the Internet during their last year in high school (Kooperman 1999).

There is also some evidence that the digital divide between blacks and whites parallels the educational achievement gap between the two groups. Controlling for education, whites are more likely to own a home computer and use the web than African Americans (Hoffman et al., 2000, Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies 1999). White students of all ages are also more likely to pay attention and effort to their studies than their black classmates, who run the risk of being labeled such epithets as “oreo” and “sellout” if they excel academically (Belluck 1999, Walton 1999, Noldon and Sedlacek 1994). This contributes to the fact that, innate intelligence aside, many black students lack the grades, study skills, and interest necessary to gain acceptance to and graduate from college. While blacks now graduate from high school at almost the same rate as whites, they lag behind at the postsecondary level, receiving only 8.3% of the bachelor’s degrees and 5.4% of all doctoral degrees awarded (U.S. Department of Education 1999).

This study examines whether or not the digital divide persists throughout the college experience and, if so, whether it is related to a gap in study habits between different racial/ethnic groups. No study heretofore has examined whether or not a gap exists between whites and blacks and whites and Hispanics on a cross-section of public and private colleges and universities. This research examines 1) whether or not such a gap exists, 2) if such a gap exists, whether it narrows from the freshman to senior years 3) and the influence of hours of studying and presence of a computer in the home of origin on Internet use among white, black, Hispanic and Asian college students.


Participants and Procedure

Eight hundred seventy-three students from nine colleges, including 333 from three private colleges and 540 from six public colleges, in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New Jersey, Georgia, and Hawaii participated in the study. Only students who were 25 years of age or less were included in the study. Surveys were distributed to a wide variety of classes at each of the colleges in order to ensure a broad representation of majors. Three hundred fifty-two were from humanities/social sciences, 380 were from business or math/science, and 136 were undeclared. Four hundred eighty students were male and 393 were female. Six hundred fifty-five students were white, 74 were Asian, 83 were black and 61 were Hispanic. Students who declined to identify themselves as to race and students who described themselves as American Indian or of mixed race were not included in the study, since their numbers were too small to analyze. The total number of the original 935 participants excluded for these reasons was 62. Table 1 shows the distribution of major groups by race/ethnicity.

Table 1


Participants completed a questionnaire that assessed demographics and Internet use. Demographic information included age, major, gender, year in college, whether the student lived on campus or commuted from home, parental education, and parental income (as reported by students), and estimated time spent studying per week. Respondents answered the following Internet-related questions: 1) if, and for how long, there was a computer in the household in which they grew up; 2) if, and where, they accessed the Internet while growing up; 3) how many hours per week they use the Internet now; 4) the number of present courses requiring use of the Internet; and 5) the purposes for which they use the Internet. Virtually all students with computers in the home reported that the computer had Internet access. Students were questioned as to whether they lived away from home while attending school, and, if so, whether they owned their own computer. All students were asked how much time they spent studying during an average week.


Does a Gap Exist in Internet Use Among Asian, White, Black, and Hispanic College Students?

Yes. An analysis of variance shows that race/ethnicity is a significant predictor of Internet hours (F=2.94, p=0.033). The natural log of Internet hours was used in this analysis, to make distributions closer to normal and variances among groups more homogeneous. Table 2 indicates the mean and median overall hours of Internet use per week among the various racial/ethnic groups in the sample. The only significant differences, using Tukey’s multiple comparisons, were between Asians and blacks (p=0.018); differences between whites and blacks were marginally significant (p=0.10).

Table 2

Does the Gap in Internet Use Narrow From Freshman to Senior Year?

No. In fact, as Table 3 reveals, among all races/ethnicities, freshman use the Internet the most, followed by sophomores, seniors, and juniors, in that order. The significant differences among races/ethnicities persist even when year in school is controlled in the analysis of variance. Both race/ethnicity (p=0.019) and year in school (p=0.014) are significant in this model (F=3.266, P=0.004).

Table 3

Do Hours of Studying Affect Internet Use?

Yes. College students, of all races/ethnicities, who study more also tend to use the Internet more than those students who study for fewer hours per week (F=6.071, P<0.001). Table 4 describes the relationship between Internet use and hours spent studying. The same general pattern is shown by each racial/ethnic group, although some category numbers are too small for statistical analysis.

Table 4

Does Having a Computer in the Home of Origin Influence Internet Use?

Yes. In fact, as Table 5 reveals, the longer the computer has been in the home, the greater the use of the Internet. For those with computers in their home of origin, use of the Internet rises significantly (F=5.407, p=0.001) as time the computer has been present increases.

Table 5

Of those who did have a computer in the home (n=749), extent of use is similar to that for the sample as a whole. Asians use the Internet the most, followed by whites, Hispanics, and blacks, as shown in Table 6. These differences are statistically significant (F= 3.186, p=0.023).

TABLE 6: Students with computer in home of origin only

For those who did not have a computer at home (n=115), computer use is lower, as might be expected. Whites use the computer less than students of any other race/ethnicity; Asians still report the greatest usage (see Table 7). However, the numbers in some of the cells are rather small, so statistical analysis of this data is of uncertain validity.

TABLE 7: Students without computer in home of origin only

Are There Differences in Internet Use by Race/Ethnicity Among Those Living Away From Home Who Own Their Own Computers?

Yes. Those who own their own computers tend, not surprisingly, to use the Internet more than those who do not. However, there still are significant differences by race/ethnicity (F = 3.417, p=0.018) even among those living away from home and owning computers (n=332). Means for average Internet hours among these students are shown in Table 8.

TABLE 8: Students living away from home with their own computers only

Does Choice of Major Entirely Determine Which Students Use the Computer Most?

Since in our sample, as in most colleges and universities, Asians tend to be overrepresented and blacks and Hispanics underrepresented in the business and sciences majors, it seemed possible that major might explain all the differences found in this paper. Such a finding would not be a true explanation; students choose their own majors, and their reasons may be related to other variables of interest to this study. In any case, a two-way analysis of variance showed that although major is a strong influence on amount of computer use, time spent studying is still a strongly significant factor (F=4.529, p<0.001), even once the effects of major are removed from the analysis.

There were few differences in Internet use in regard to the other variables measured. All races/ethnicities had similar access to the Internet through school and the library while growing up, though whites and Hispanics were somewhat more likely to use the Internet at homes of friends. There was a very slight tendency for Internet use to increase with greater (student-reported) parental education (r =0.028) and income (r =0.069), but these small differences were inconsistent across racial groups. All racial groups reported similar numbers of courses requiring Internet use (median=1 for all). Finally, there were no significant differences in the purposes for which the different racial/ethnic groups used the Internet.


Our results support the existing research that reveals a gap in Internet use among the major racial and ethnic groups in the United States. It also lends credence to research that has focused on the importance of access to a computer and the Internet at home and the length of time of that access (Hoffman and Novak 1998, Hoffman et al 2000, Odell et al 2000). The students in our sample, across all races and ethnicities, who had a computer in their family’s home, tended to use the Internet more hours per week than those who grew up in a household without a computer. In fact, whites and Hispanics who had computers in their home of origin spent roughly double the amount of time on the Internet as whites and Hispanics who did not have a computer in the home.

This study also shows a connection between study habits and Internet use. Students who dedicate more hours per week studying are also logging more hours on-line than those who devote less time to their academic work. For instance, in our sample, blacks not only use the Internet less, they also study less than members of other racial groups. While further research, with a wider sample, must be carried out in order to try to fully understand this connection, our findings echo previous research indicating that black students are socialized to take their studies less seriously than white students. With increased use of the Internet in college courses, it makes sense that students who study less will spend fewer hours per week utilizing the Internet than their classmates who study more.

Perhaps most surprisingly, there remain differences among racial/ethnic groups even among students who live away from home and own their own computers. Asians still use the Internet the most, and blacks still lag behind in time spent on the Internet. These differences, on an apparently equal playing field, demonstrate that more than economic factors are playing a role in amount of Internet use.

Clearly, many factors are working together to influence the persistence of the “digital divide.” Cultural, as well as economic forces, are at work. The recent N.P.R./Kaiser/ Kennedy School (2000) study illustrated this when it found that while, in households with incomes under $30,000 a year, 34% of whites compared to 19% of blacks had Internet access from home, there were no major differences between whites and blacks at similar income levels in their purchases of other home electronics such as VCRs and cable television.

Even with such websites as BET.com, NetNoir.com and Blackvoices.com recently set up in anticipation of an increasing market of black Internet users, it appears that many blacks view the Internet as a white tool rather than a universal means of information and education (Marci 1999). Disturbingly, this study indicates that this trend is alive and well at colleges and universities, even when virtually all college campuses now have Internet access for students. This finding, while troublesome, is consistent with Hoffman et al’s finding that the gap in access to and use of the Internet among blacks and whites does not decrease as education increases but is actually widest among those with at least a college degree (Hoffman et al 2000). In late February 2000, Jesse Jackson declared access to technology “the newest stage of the civil rights struggle” (Hafner, 3/5/00). This study reveals that, among college students, it is not only access but whether or not students have been exposed to the Internet in their home of origin and how willing they are to make use of the access they have on Internet accessible campuses that are also key factors we must address if we are to ever bridge the “digital divide.”


This study indicates that the “digital divide” is alive and well on college and university campuses today. It also supports previous research that reveals a positive relationship between Internet use and home computer ownership. The results also reveal that study habits are related to Internet use and that, in this sample at least, black college students self-reported both less use of the Internet less and less study time than members of other races/ethnicities.


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