Seventy-two percent of Latinos over eighteen own smartphones – almost ten percent more than the national average. We try to answer why Latinos use phones at higher rates and what mobile technology could mean for health, finances, and democracy.
Seventy-two percent of Latinos over eighteen own smartphones – almost ten percent more than the national average. We try to answer why Latinos use phones at higher rates and what mobile technology could mean for health, finances, and democracy.
Picture above shows students from P.S. 161 Pedro Albizu Campos: Wilkaury Manard, Pedro Gonzalez, and Miguel Paolino.
The digital divide is used to describe the gap between certain geographic areas and different demographics’ access to internet and communication technologies.
When the term gained traction in the 1990s, it was often talked about in terms of who had and did not have access to computers. But today, people can access the internet through their phones. Around 72% of Latinos over eighteen own smartphones – almost 10% more than the national average.
Smartphones are often a cheaper option for Latino families and according to Nielson Latinos are, “the trendsetters when it comes to digital device ownership and online usage.”
Latinos continue to have less access to desktop or laptop computers but because of their heavy online mobile usage, the divide is more complicated than just an issue of those who “have” and those who “have not.”
Antonia Cereijido visited a middle school in Harlem, P.S. 161, to find out how this divide is playing out with young Latinos.
Clinical psychologist Dr. Ricardo Muñoz grew up in one of the latino strongholds of the U.S.: The Mission District in San Francisco. Not unlike a very popular Latino icon: Carlos Santana.
Both Dr. Muñoz and Santana’s fathers immigrated to San Francisco in 1960. Dr. Muñoz grew up on 14th street, Santana grew up on 14th street. Dr. Muñoz went to Mission Dolores Grammar School, Santana went to Mission High School which are only a couple blocks away from each other.
You could call Dr. Muñoz the Santana of health.
Santana was a pioneer of music in the 1960s and Dr. Muñoz is a pioneer in psychology. He found a new way to reach out to his patients: through the web. But growing up, Dr. Muñoz did not want to be a rock star psychologist.
“When I was a child, my nickname was ‘el cura’ or the priest. I actually did want to become a priest. I almost became a priest when I was 10, 13, and 18. By the time I got to be 18, I had a lot of doubts about the Catholic dogma. So I didn’t really think I could become a priest because I couldn’t teach people something I wasn’t sure about myself.”
In college, Dr. Muñoz took his first introductory course in psychology.
“I fell in love with it because psychology is dedicated to doing what I wanted to do as a priest, which was to help people lead good lives.”
In 1985 Dr. Muñoz began a clinic that offered therapy for things like depression and smoking cessation – both in English and in Spanish. But it was very hard to get Spanish speaking smokers to come. One possible reason is that many Latinos have more than one job,
“Or they are taking care of their kids and don’t have anyone else who can take care of them,” Dr. Muñoz suggests.
There was another barrier – a cultural one. Many Latinos feel very uncomfortable going to the psychologist.
“No estoy loco, right? I’m not crazy, right?” Dr. Muñoz says is a common phrase Latinos who don’t want to go to the psychologist imply.
So Dr. Muñoz decided – if people weren’t going to come to him – he would go to them. Or at least send them material through the mail.
“And we did the study and we found that in fact sending a smoking cessation guide in spanish helped about 10% people quit smoking,” says Dr. Muñoz.
Eventually they were getting quit rates as good or even a bit better than the nicotine patch.
“That was amazing,” Dr. Muñoz says.
But there was a catch: the price.
“It cost to create these brochures. Very nicely printed color brochures, ”
This limited how many people they could reach. So Dr. Muñoz got to thinking,
“This is 1997. And the web had begun about six years before. And… it occurred to me that if we could do this via the web we could reach a lot more people.”
Thus stop smoking.ucsf.edu was born. It’s a free smoking cessation site that can be found in english and in spanish.
“First thinking that we were going to help people in the San Francisco bay area but then people started coming from throughout California, throughout the country, and throughout the world,” says Muñoz, “It was just so surprising that through the web we could reach so many people. Now of course this is not surprising at all but back in the 1990’s it was.”
Dr. Muñoz kept putting materials online.
“We set up a website not just for the smoking stuff but other things. And we put the manuals we had been developing.”
A few years ago he went to a conference in Lima, Peru.
“Some psychologist came up to me and said Dr. Muñoz would you mind coming with us? We wanna show you something.”
They took him to what’s called un pueblo joven.
“In english it would mean like a young town right. I guess it could be called a shantytown. It’s a very poor community.“
In the town they had a health center that had been established by Jesuits.
“And in that health center there was one room that was dedicated to mental health and in that room they were running a depression group using the manuals we had developed here at San Francisco general hospital. And I can tell you that’s one of the highest points I’ve had.”
“With technology what you can do is you can reach people even in places where there are no services for them. Let’s say you’re a smoker, spanish speaking smoker in Wyoming or someplace where there’s not a lot of Latinos and certainly no Latino psychologists or smoking cessation counselors. You could get on the internet and reach our spanish speaking cessation site anywhere.”
Some people doubted that online mental health treatment could be effective for a demographic like Latinos.
“Back in the 1990s when I began doing this work there was the big issue of the digital divide. And sometimes we would get criticized by other Latinos that here we were doing stuff with technology and that was not really appropriate.”
But Dr. Muñoz takes issue with this idea. There’s a book called Mountains Beyond Mountains by Tracy Kidder that Dr. Muñoz really likes.
The book is about the true story of a doctor named Paul Farmer who became obsessed with bringing healthcare to Haiti. There’s a part in the book where farmer and a local priest are talking about technology. Dr. Muñoz likes to quote from it:
“But Farmer asks, ‘Are they appropriate technology?’ He had picked up the term at Harvard. What does the priest say? ‘Do you know what appropriate technology means? It means good things for rich people and shit for the poor.’”
Dr. Muñoz can relate to the priest.
“That was the kind of response I was getting early on.“
He never saw technology as an obstacle in and of itself.
“And now i’m finding out that latinos are actually way ahead of other ethnic groups in the us in terms of smart phones.”
When Dr. Muñoz was developing his smoking cessation site this data about Latinos and their connection to their phones wasn’t available.
But fast forward 20 years, and Dr. Adrian Aguilera – who actually was a mentee of Dr. Muñoz, is well aware that a good way to reach his patients is through their phone – Specifically through text.
“On a daily basis, people get a mood question: ‘What is your mood right now on a scale from 1 to 9? Respond with a number and what you’re doing or thinking right now.”
Dr. Aguilera focuses on depression. Ge reaches out to his patients throughout the week using an automated text messaging system.
It sends text like:
-“Were you able to notice your negative, unhelpful thoughts this week?”
-“Can you think of any thoughts that improved your mood today?”
-“Take time to focus on the present, the past is left behind and the future is for later.”
It helps patients to do something psychologists have nicknamed “homework.”
“When people show up to the treatment, they end up not completing the homework. Maybe because we we are calling it homework,” says Dr. Aguilera.
Homework for people in depression treatment means keeping track of how you’re feeling.
Wo figuring out how you feel on a scale of 1 -9 and noticing what sorts of behaviors are triggering what feelings.
So are you happier when you go for a run? Are you sad when you’re about to go to sleep?
“So what we do is instead of asking people to fill out a piece of paper with their mood throughout the week and maybe how many healthy activities they do each day, we’re doing this via text messaging.”
Dr. Aguilera then charts this information and shows it to his patients during session.
“With that data, we can start identifying some low points, some high points, make those teaching moments.”
These texts also serve another purpose: to offer motivation and support to his patients.
“They’re mostly made to help people think about these issues that we’re talking about. I often talk about how we’re in the therapy sessions for an hour and a half every week, but there are many more hours throughout the week. the goal is to continue practicing those skills throughout the week.”
Dr. Aguilera and dr. munoz actually found that spanish speakers and english speakers who received the texts felt differently about them.
Spanish speakers said the texts made them feel supported while english speakers said the texts made them more introspective.
In general, more healthcare providers are embracing technology.
“I think on the front lines, there has been a move towards incorporating technology in a lot of interventions.”
Dr. Aguilera says that there’s is a movement away from self-reporting – things like entering what you had for lunch in a diet app – towards something called “passive sensing.” There’s an app being developed at Northwestern University called ‘mobilize.’
“It’s a combination of active and passive sensing. It would ask you what your mood was, but it would detect where you were geographically. It would predict when you might be feeling down or up based on where you were.”
Some people are spooked by the amount of personal data that can be collected through apps like these.
“It’s scary and exciting. I realize that. For those of us in the field, it’s mostly exciting. The way I see it is the Googles and Facebooks of the world are already doing this to try to sell us things. I see our work as trying to take this data, but try to help people to be more healthy.”
Dr. Aguilera worries about something else. He sees the development of fancy health tech stuff like Fitbit and Nike Fuel,
“And that’s great, but those types of technology are in the hands of those that are most well off. In order for these interventions to truly reduce costs and have a wide public health impact, they need to be targeted towards lower income backgrounds and people that have the highest burden of health disease and health problems.”
It’s not that latinos can’t handle this expensive technology, it’s that they sometimes can’t afford it. This question of access is what inspired both Dr. Aguilera and Dr. Muñoz to get involved with technology to begin with.
All of Dr. Muñoz’s online programs and materials are still online and completely free.
And the Santana of health has no plans to slow down….
“I think what drives me is that I realize that even through the web we’re only reaching a small portion of people. Every time I see a patient that hour I spend with a patient is gone forever. It’s consumable, it’s used up. But through the internet, the sites I create can be used again and again and again by people all over the world anytime it’s convenient for them, anywhere. There should be a therapist, a physician, a health care provider for every person in the world who needs it. But until we do that, I think we need to develop other kinds of interventions like digital interventions, web apps and internet sites.”
A few weeks ago, we reached out to you on Twitter and asked if technology has improved the way you communicate with loved ones abroad. We heard back from a few of you, including David Colunga, in Houston, who spent his childhood in Mexico.
“For somebody living in the US it’s kind of hard to understand,” says David, “Technologies that are commonly used by everyone in the US, in a certain time, those in Mexico were just starting to develop. There was very little access.”
David grew up in the tiny town of Tula, Tamaulipas with his mother, while his father worked in the United States. Growing up, there wasn’t much phone or Internet access, so there really only one way to get in touch with someone.
“When I was a kid, my mom and dad communicated through letters,” says David. “They would send letters every week or every two weeks, so all the information each other knew about what was going on was a week off.”
But Tula did have some phone access, mostly in a place called La Caseta. “It’s this place where they had several phones,” David explains, “and people living in the U.S. would call this Caseta to talk to their loved ones on the phone.”
Of course, it’s the 21st century now and there’s greater communication access everywhere in the world. Facebook, for instance, now has well over a billion active users, as many users as there are people in China.
“In my case, most of my family, my extended family, I have them on Facebook, and plenty of times I have received messages–funny thing is it’s from the younger generation. One of my cousins will say, ‘Give my dad a call, he wants to talk to you.'”
These days, families video chat for through Skype, they message each other through free services like WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger. It’s become easier to stay in touch with people across borders than it’s ever been. But David Colunga isn’t sure that’s necessarily a good thing. “There is a downside though,” he says. “A lot of my friends have been the same friends I had when I left Mexico and I think sometimes that having this super easy and fast way to keep track and stay in touch with the friends you have in your home country, and sometimes it feels like it would hinder your ability, or just your time, to develop and get new friendships and new relationships, you know?”
But the fact is, it is easy to send messages across the border—and it’s easier to send money, too.
“Remittances to the developing world are a $410 billion industry,” says Edrizio de la Cruz, an entrepreneur who started his small digital remittance company in 2012. For comparison, the remittance industry itself is almost the size of the global airline industry. “From the United States, Latin America received $60 billion, just from the United States, so it’s just humongous.”
De la Cruz believes that traditional remittances channels are “inherently broken.” By that he’s referring to fees. Most companies, like Moneygram, Sigue and Xoon, take between 5 and 10%. While that might not seem like much, a monthly remittance payment to help family members abroad pay for utilities or groceries could result in hundreds of dollars a year—just in fees.
“The other facet is that of control and transparency,” says de la Cruz.
You don’t know when the money gets there.” It’s not even the responsibility of the remittance companies to notify you that your money was received safely, he explains.
“They have to literally pick up the phone and call you, ‘Hey, I received the money. Thank you.’ And that rarely happens.”
Edrizio knows all this because his family, who immigrated to New York from the Dominican Republic when he was a kid, used to send money home all the time.
My mother had always sent money back like clockwork to my aunt and my grandmother in Santo Domingo. What I noticed is that the process hadn’t really evolved in the past 20 years.”
Another legitimate concern in de la Cruz’s Dominican community is that senders have no idea how the people on the other side are actually spending the money they receive, assuming it does get there. “You don’t know what they’re gonna do with it,” he says, “gamble it away or it drink it away, something else other than what you intended.”
So de la Cruz did what any natural entrepreneur would do when confronted with a problem: he turned the solution into a business. His startup, Regalii, is located in Washington Heights in northern Manhattan, in the heart of the community he grew up in. (Regalii is play on regalo, the spanish word for “gift.”)
With traditional companies like Moneygram or Western Union, you just send money from one side to the other with no control over how that money is spent. The idea behind Regalii is that you don’t even have to send money home, you simply pay bills directly to the utility companies online. Bills can include things like cable, electricity, phone, even credit card bills.
Around the corner from Regalii’s office, Daisy Paolino’s international services company called GWB offers its customers the chance to use Regalii. But, she says, people are still beginning to just find out that it even exists. “People come here and they hear me talking about it and they’re like, “Really? You can do that?” she says.
While most customers come in to buy things like pre-paid international phone cards or to send Moneygrams, Daisy says customers come to pay bills using Regalii about three or four times a day.
Of course, because it’s just a website, anyone can use it themselves, but if GWB’s customers don’t have access to a computer or don’t know how to navigate the Internet on your phone, or even if they don’t have a credit card, they can come to her store, or one of the many like it, and pay international bills in cash.
For now, Regalii works because of community trust. Edrizio de la Cruz was born in the Dominican Republic, raised in a Dominican neighborhood, headquartered his office in that Dominican neighborhood, for a company that began by servicing his Dominican community—a community that exists both here and in the Dominican Republic. He even got one of the most beloved Dominican TV personalities, El Pachá, to rep his product.
“So affiliating yourself with trusted entities, trusted personalities, helps,” de la Cruz.
And the company is growing. Through his service, users have paid close to two million dollars in bill payments in the DR alone, and the company is expanded to other countries like India and the Philippines. Still, the company is small, and de la Cruz says he feels a sense of isolation considering how few Latinos there are in the tech world. For example, he says, there are four times more women startup founders than there are Hispanic founders (regardless of gender). “And people say ‘women in tech is low.’ Yeah it’s low, but it’s still a lot bigger than Hispanics.”
Why does he think that is? “A lot of Latinos are new to this country. They’re one or two generations in, so typically you’ve already taken one big leap, so you’re somewhat reserved from taking that next big leap. That reservation sticks with you one or two generations until you’re stable. It’s very hard to say, ‘Okay I just got here, I’m going to do something completely off the beaten path!’
Another reason he points to is precedence. “[Latinos] don’t have an ecosystem that supports them.” Because there haven’t been many Latinos in the tech field in the past, there is no built-in institutional support to help the younger generation.
Getting Latinos working in the tech sector, of course, has to start with Latinos feeling an ownership of technology that they use (or don’t use), and that’s not always easy within a Latino cultural context.
David Colunga, for example, never used technology to send money home to Mexico, even though he admits it would easier. “The reason is the power of habit.” he says. “I just never developed the habit of using the internet for that. And then when I got into smartphones and the internet, I just never considered using them for that purpose.”
But companies like Regalii are interrupters of habit and are introducing a lot of Latinos to this new ideas like sending remittances online.
“It would be be very convenient,” admits David. “But I just never got into that, I don’t know why.”
So despite the high rates at which Latinos use mobile technology, some are still underestimating what that technology—technology that’s there right in their hands—is capable of.
Photo by futureatlas.com via Flickr.
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