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A New Digital Divide in Education Emerges

It used to be true that students from poor families were less likely to have computers and high-speed internet at home. Students from middle and higher income families had a technological advantage because they were much more likely to have access to computers and high-speed internet at home. This uneven access to technology was called the "digital divide" and was thought to cause achievement gaps between rich and poor students.

A 2017 census of media use by kids age zero to eight shows that the gap in computer access is rapidly closing and there is virtually no gap at all when it comes to mobile devices such as smartphones or tablets. 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.

The Digital Divide Has Become an Overuse Divide

Access to the internet has become ubiquitous, and with that easy access, children are spending more and more time in front of a screen. Television remains the most common broadcast medium, but approximately three-fourths of teenagers today have a smartphone and one-quarter of teenagers describe themselves as "constantly connected" to the internet. Social media sites and mobile apps are among the most popular, along with texting, photo sharing, video-chatting and games.

The 2017 media-use survey found that low-income parents allowed their young children, age birth to eight, to spend three-and-a-half hours a day in front of a television or computer screen. This is almost double the amount of time that the typical high-income child has, and it is an increase over the last time the survey was taken in 2013.

Kevin Clark, director of the Center for Digital Media Innovation and Diversity at George Mason University says, "It's not a technology divide, it's a content divide. And it's a divide in how the technology is being used."

Parental Oversight and Monitoring

Studies have shown that higher-income and better-educated parents often control and monitor their children's activity online, whereas low-income families appear to be using technology as a babysitter and for keeping children occupied in the car or on public transportation. In defense, Clark points out that in some situations, screen time is a better option than sending children out to play in an environment that may not be safe.

Michael Robb, research director for Common Sense says the digital divide today is about quality of usage, not access. It's not that screen time will harm children, he points out, "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?"

Consequences of Too Much Screen Time

As young children are drawn into videos, games and apps and every finger swipe brings an instant response, their brains respond by releasing the neurotransmitter dopamine. The release of this chemical can become addictive, causing children to prefer this type of interaction to real-world connections, thereby stunting development.

Evidence suggests that media use can negatively affect sleep and exposure to blue light from screens before bed can delay or disrupt sleep, negatively affecting school performance.

Children who are heavy users of video games are at risk of internet gaming disorder which includes preoccupation with gaming, decreased interest in offline relationships and withdrawal symptoms. Children and teenagers who use entertainment media while doing homework or other academic tasks are suffering negative consequences on learning.

Parents can also be distracted by media and may not be giving the attention to their children's media use that they should be. It may be helpful to develop a Family Media Use Plan that will provide guidelines and health goals for the whole family.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends media-use guidelines, which specify age-appropriate screen-time and media use for children, suggest that families designate media-free times and locations, and encourage respectful online and offline communication.

Learn more about the UW-Superior online MS Ed. in Instruction program.


U.S. News: Technology Overuse May Be the New Digital Divide

American Academy of Pediatrics: American Academy of Pediatrics Announces New Recommendations for Children's Media Use

Psychology Today: What Screen Time Can Really Do to Kids' Brains

Common Sense Media: Media Use by Kids Age Zero to Eight 2017

American Academy of Pediatrics: Media Use in School-Aged Children and Adolescents

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