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Study: 'Digital divide' shrinks among U.S. kids

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) -- The "digital divide" between rich and poor children in the United States is rapidly shrinking as youngsters of all income levels and ethnic groups increasingly use the Internet, a report released on Wednesday said.

Internet use among minority and low-income children has surged over the past two years, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting reported, and children under 17 now spend nearly as much time in front of a computer as they do watching television.

But gaps persist as white children and those from rich families are still more likely to have high-speed Internet access at home, the study found. "The so-called digital divide has not gone away," said Peter Grunwald, whose research firm Grunwald Associates surveyed thousands of parents and children over the past year.

As Internet use has taken off in mainstream society over the past decade, some public-policy experts have worried that less-affluent sectors could become more isolated as they do not develop the skills needed to succeed in the digital era.

More than two-thirds of low-income households now have a computer at home, compared to 98 percent of high-income households, the report found. Two years ago, computers could be found in fewer than half of all low-income households, while nine out of 10 rich households had a computer.

"It's the low-income kids coming on in a very dramatic fashion over the past few years that has really driven the rise in Internet usage," Grunwald said. Gains among Hispanic and African-American children were equally dramatic, the study found, with the youngest children logging on at rates equal to white kids -- possibly because their parents are more Net-savvy themselves, Grunwald said.

In households with Internet access, teenagers are likely to spend more time in front of their computers than in front of the television, the study found, while younger children spend somewhat more time watching television. Much of that computer time is devoted to playing games but a large amount of time is devoted to doing homework and research as well, the study found.

The signs of increased Internet use are encouraging, but the persistent gaps between ethnic and income groups are a cause for concern, said Les Francis, a vice president with Educational Testing Service, a research group that helped pay for the study.

Low-income and minority kids are more likely to get Internet access through schools but opportunities there may be limited due to a lack of computers, he said.

Copyright 2003 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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