For years policymakers have fretted about the “digital divide,” that poor students are less likely to have computers and high-speed internet at home than rich students. The fear was, and is, that technology might cause achievement gaps between rich and poor students to grow if it’s easier for rich kids to use educational software, practice computer coding or learn about the world online.
A new 2017 survey of technology use at home shows the gap in computer access is rapidly closing. When it comes to mobile devices, such as smartphones or tablets, the gap has virtually vanished. Even high-speed internet access is becoming more commonplace. Nearly 75 percent of families making less than $30,000 a year said they had high-speed internet access in 2017, up from 46 percent in 2013. More than 70 percent of low-income families said they had a computer at home.
Instead, the sharpest contrasts between rich and poor children now are in media usage. The survey, conducted by the nonprofit media watchdog group Common Sense, found that low-income parents sat their young children, from birth to age eight, in front of a television or a computer screen for 3 hours and 29 minutes a day, on average. That’s almost double the 1 hour and 50 minutes of daily screen time that the typical high-income child has. (The study labels families making more than $75,000 a year as high income.)
Both television viewing and mobile device use increased for low-income children compared with the last time the survey was taken, in 2013. By contrast, overall screen time remained fairly constant for high-income children, with mobile devices replacing some of the time that used to be spent in front of a television.
“Access to hardware is less of an issue,” said Kevin Clark, director of the Center for Digital Media Innovation and Diversity at George Mason University. “It’s not a technology divide, it’s a content divide. And it’s a divide in how the technology is being used.”
Higher income and better educated parents often control and monitor what their kids watch online. And for young children, families are making different decisions about how much and when to let their children watch screens. Low-income families appear to be using them more frequently as a babysitter and to occupy children during long commutes by car or public transportation.
Clark cautioned against judging low-income families for allowing their kids so much screen time. “You need to understand what is actually happening. Is screen time a better option than sending them out to play outside where it’s not safe?” he asked. Higher income families can pay for more childcare, sign their kids up for activities or allow their kids to run around a backyard.
“We have closed certain aspects of the digital divide,” said Michael Robb, research director for Common Sense. “But now we need to add to the conversation of digital equity. How do you also improve quality of usage now that everybody has access? And not just give in to the whims of advertisers or what surfaces to the top of YouTube.”
How this additional screen time will affect children is unclear. One high-profile study linked television watching to attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), but that has not been proven. The American Academy of Pediatrics has gradually loosened its recommendations to avoid or limit screen time. In their latest October 2016 revision, the pediatricians advised that children under 18 months should avoid screens, except for video chatting. The current guideline is that children ages 2 to 5 should not watch more than one hour a day, and doesn’t specify time limits for children six and older.
“It’s not so much that screen time is going to harm children,” said Robb. “But we have a hundred years of child development research. We know what children need to develop in positive and healthy ways. They need high-quality interactions with parents and loving caregivers. They need exercise and free play. The primary concern is, is screen time displacing the things that we know are good for child development?”
This message isn’t getting across to all parents. The Common Sense survey found that only one in five parents know the AAP’s recommendations for limiting media use. Almost a quarter of higher-income and college-educated parents did, compared to only 16 percent of low-income parents without a college education.
Common Sense is launching a public information campaign to encourage families to put away the smartphone at dinnertime. That’s a good idea – for young and old alike. But it would be tough for any public information campaign to help parents monitor their children when they’re working a shift during dinner.
This column was written by Jill Barshay and produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education.