A computer in every household: In the 1990s, policy makers, researchers, pundits claimed that making sure that everyone, especially children from low-income families, having access to computers and the internet was the key to eliminating the “digital divide.” But as a recent New York Times article details, just providing everyone with technology is no guarantee that it will be used in the idealized ways envisioned. As access to computers, the internet and mobile devices has grown,
…children in poorer families are spending considerably more time than children from more well-off families using their television and gadgets to watch shows and videos, play games and connect on social networking sites, studies show.
This growing time-wasting gap, policy makers and researchers say, is more a reflection of the ability of parents to monitor and limit how children use technology than of access to it.
A 2010 study by the Kaiser Family Foundation discovered that children in families whose parents do not have a college degree spent “90 minutes more per day exposed to media than children from higher socioeconomic families.” In contrast, they spent only 16 minutes more in 1999. Children whose parents had a college degree spent 11.5 hours of every day “exposed to media from a variety of sources, including television, computer and other gadgets,” an increase of four hours and forty minutes since 1999.
Children whose parents were more educated — understood as a measure of higher socioeconomic standing — also used computers and other devices primarily for entertainment and for ten hours a day, a 3.5-hour jump since 1999.
Do We Need to Create a “Digital Literacy Corps”?
The difference is great enough that the Federal Communications Commission is considering a $200 million proposal to create a “digital literacy corps” to instruct parents, students and others about “productive uses” of technology, through libraries and schools.
As the New York Times quotes Danah Boyd, a senior researcher at Microsoft:
Access is not a panacea. Not only does it not solve problems, it mirrors and magnifies existing problems we’ve been ignoring.
Boyd goes so far as to say that “we failed to account for this ahead of the curve,” that computers could be the source of so much entertainment, and time-wasting; that, left to their own devices, kids will find ways to use technology that aren’t what the adults intended. Vicky Rideout, author of the Kaiser study, says the same:
Despite the educational potential of computers, the reality is that their use for education or meaningful content creation is minuscule compared to their use for pure entertainment. Instead of closing the achievement gap, they’re widening the time-wasting gap.
I suspect most parents could have noted that. The New York Times describes 12-year-old Markiy Cook of Oakland, California, who loves technology, has a 1.0 grade-point average and acknowledges staying up all night to play video games, to the extent that he is tired when he goes to school. Money is “tight” in his family, which has two laptops, an Xbox 360 and a Nintendo Wii; Markiy has his own phone. Facebook, YouTube, texting and playing games are his preferred ways to use these.
Households of any income level with that much technology will likely be commonplace if they aren’t already. No matter the income level of the students are the small, urban college where I teach in Jersey City, everyone has a cell phone and access to a netbook or computer, or their very own. Facebook, YouTube and such sites are not only preferred activities to them, but essential. More than a few students have admitted (sheepishly) that they have missed class yet again because they stayed up all night playing video games. Students always use computers to write their papers on but — due to social media sites online and on their phones — they are constantly interrupted as they switch screens to chat with friends or watch a little more of a video, or play some online game.
It’s a reminder to all those who argue that technology provides the answers for student achievement and improvement: Computers, the internet and such are all great and can be beneficial. But students — our kids — still need guidance in the form of parents and teachers looking over their shoulders and at their screens and saying, it’s time to turn the electornics off now and go outside for some fresh air.
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