Screen Time, the New Digital Divide?

16 May 2018, Posted by Sarina Simon in Children's Media, Edtech, instructional design, kids' media

Screen Time, the New Digital Divide?

Years ago, when I left book publishing and began creating digital content, well-meaning folks worried that the digital divide would widen the achievement gap in US schools. We campaigned hard to get computers into all schools and libraries. We urged our parent companies to donate equipment. We volunteered to show teachers how to use computers in their classrooms. In short, we were vocal advocates both for equal access and Edtech. Nevertheless, despite our good intentions, for many years, access to computers and other devices was mostly limited to affluent families and school districts.

Happily, times have changed—not enough to achieve equal access, but serious progress has been made. In a 2017 study by Common Sense Media, researchers found that mobile devices are now so ubiquitous that almost all families have them. In addition, researchers discovered that 75% of families making less than $30K a year had high-speed Internet and about 70% had computers at home. These figures marked an almost 100% improvement since 2013.

So that’s the good news. Now, the bad news.

Today the more pressing issue concerns media usage. In another recent Common Sense Media study, researchers found young children (birth-age 8) from low-income homes spent twice as much time on screens as kids from higher income homes. As Kevin Clark, Director of the Center for Digital Media Innovation and Diversity at George Mason University puts it, “Access to hardware is less of an issue. It’s not a technology divide, it’s a content divide.”

screen media time

Common Sense Census: media use by kids age zero to eight.


And while no study has told us how much screen time is the “right” amount for young children, we do know there are many other ways of spending time that are essential to healthy child development. According to Michael Robb, Common Sense’s Director of Research, “It’s not so much that screen time is going to harm children. 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?”

And lest you jump to any hasty conclusions about the dedication of low-income parents, consider this point from Kevin Clark, “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? Higher-income families can pay for more childcare, sign their kids up for activities or allow their kids to run around a backyard.”

Wow, and if that wasn’t enough to get your “we got to do something” juices flowing, consider a recent study done by a team of researchers at NYU. While they did find that many “educational” videos help preschoolers learn, they also found that kids from high-income homes learn more from them than kids from low-income homes. It’s not clear why this is so, but as the head of their team, Susan B. Neuman, said, educational video “is not going to close the achievement gap. It’s probably going to exacerbate the gap.”

So here we are simultaneously narrowing and widening the achievement gap. For my part, I know that educators and educational content providers cannot cure all the ills of an unequal society, but we can do all we can to learn how to make better educational content that levels the content playing field, and we can urge our political leaders to provide safe, quality childcare for all working families. In an age where Edtech is one of the hottest commodities in the investment community, isn’t it time more of that money goes to making sure that Edtech is a plus for all kids?

What do you think? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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