The Digital Divide: How do we bridge generational gaps to ensure safety and security?

Image Source: Ironcore Inc.

Written by Eileen Kelly, Research Assistant in Cornell’s Social Media Lab and Communication Major

“OMG, he totally left me on read yesterday, even after he slid into my DMs to get my snap. Should I post about this on my finsta or private? Maybe I’ll even go on ghostmode to really leave him in the dark.”

To many adults, it seems like their children have created a completely alien new language, full of social media references, popular slang terms, and communication through memes. While parents and caregivers find this world difficult to navigate, young children who have grown up with iPads and unlimited Wifi seem to pick it up with ease. Caregivers are increasingly facing the danger of having no idea what their child is doing on the internet. The digital divide encompasses two problems within this larger issue, one being a generational divide of understanding and the other being availability of information due to socioeconomic differences. More specifically, the digital divide means simply that it “affords an opportunity to identify the inequalities between the technological haves and have-nots” (Wei & Hindman, 2011, p.216). In fact, their study comparing new media and old media found that the digital divide reinforced socioeconomic status in new media from unequal access and use of the internet. It is becoming more and more vital to address this knowledge gap stemming from unequal understanding of security measures as well as unequal access to digital information, which is what we are working towards at the Cornell Social Media Lab (SML).

Understanding Security

Keeping up with the newest technology is difficult for everyone. Keeping your children safe shouldn’t be. Throughout our research within the Youth Technology Safety Project within the SML, we have encountered questions about various regulations in place that supposedly provide user security. We are curious about the ease of getting around age requirements on popular dating app platforms, both with youth joining adult apps like Tinder, as well as “teen dating” apps that can set ages as young as 12. An area we investigate is the potential for older users to lie about their ages, avoid any real security measures, and be able to use the app to interact with teens. Yet, in trying to mitigate these threats, a study found that people reject security advice when it contains too much marketing information or threatens the user’s sense of privacy, with a majority of participants believing that someone else was responsible for their digital privacy (Redmiles, Malone, & Mazurek, 2016). This is a major problem, as not only do people think that the apps they use will ensure their privacy, but also that they have many doubts about the source when it comes to listening about security measures. Therefore, two things must be done to better teach security: people must be made aware of app security measure differences between platforms like online banking and Facebook, as well as ensuring that any future training materials promote their source credibility without giving a sense of marketing or privacy risks.

Unequal Access

Another issue we encountered is the inequality of available information, and how that leads to increased digital risks within children in the disadvantaged group. In a study by Redmiles, Kross, and Mazurek (2016), they found relationships between socioeconomic status and digital security skill, where lower-skill users rely less on security advice from work or from negative experiences and more on prompts, advice of family and friends, and service providers. This, combined with differences in skill level and available digital resources, “ may lead already disadvantaged users to be disproportionately victimized” (p.675). In other words, the study found that the knowledge divide also explains how security information is not available to everyone equally, and that different people rely on different forms of digital security advice. Those who do not have digital access at work are not as exposed to information on mitigating risks, and then cannot pass on their learned experiences to their children. This is an important consideration when presenting digital harm information, as the time, place, and mode of delivery can influence the people attending a program to teach security measures and provide advice. For example, through interviews within the Youth Tech Safety Project, we spoke with single mothers who were concerned with their children’s online safety, but would not be able to travel a long distance to attend a program occurring in the middle of a Wednesday. She emphasized that working parents or caregivers would need flexibility and weekend programs that would cover general security measures and media features they may not be familiar with. Not only must there be better delivery of security education, but it must be done in a way that provides an equal opportunity for all caregivers to learn from.

What’s Next

A solution for the digital divide is complex and will not be decided upon within this essay. But in order to work towards lessening the divide, we can begin testing different versions of how to present the information. First, we must continue to organize the problems being discussed, and better understand the knowledge gap. This will allow us to formulate a focused response that addresses the inequalities expressed above, including differences in app security, program source credibility, and equal access to programs without socioeconomic impacts. Testing different types of training programs for adults, such as how it is received when conducted through schools, through Department of Education programs, or through community groups, will allow for a more equitable and effective response to the digital divide problem. Because all young children must be kept safe from online dangers, and all caregivers must be given the right tools to help them do so.

Redmiles, E. M., Kross, S., & Mazurek, M. L. (2016) How I learned to be secure: A census-representative survey of security advice sources and behavior. 2016 ACM SIGSAC Conference on Computer and Communications Security (CCS ‘16), 666–677. doi:

Redmiles, E. M., Malone, A. R., & Mazurek, M. L. (2016). I think they’re trying to tell me something: Advice sources and selection for digital security. 2016 IEEE Symposium on Security and Privacy (SP), 272–288. doi: 10.1109/SP.2016.24.

Wei, L., & Hindman, D. B. (2011). Does the digital divide matter more? Comparing the effects of new media and old media use on the education-based knowledge gap. Mass Communication and Society, 14(2), 216–236. doi: 10.1080/15205431003642707



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