The Digital Gap Between Rich and Poor Kids

Lower-income teens spend an average of eight hours and seven minutes a day using screens for entertainment, while higher income peers spend five hours and 42 minutes, according to research by Common Sense Media, a nonprofit media watchdog.

The Digital Gap Between Rich and Poor Kids

By Nellie Bowles (The New York Times)

America’s public schools are still touting devices with screens — even offering digital-only preschools. The rich are banning screens from class altogether.

It wasn’t long ago that the worry was that rich students would have access to the internet earlier, gaining tech skills and creating a digital divide. Schools ask students to do homework online, while only about two-thirds of people in the U.S. have broadband internet service. But now, as Silicon Valley’s parents increasingly panic over the impact screens have on their children and move toward screen-free lifestyles, worries over a new digital divide are rising. It could happen that the children of poorer and middle-class parents will be raised by screens, while the children of Silicon Valley’s elite will be going back to wooden toys and the luxury of human interaction.

This is already playing out. Throwback play-based preschools are trending in affluent neighborhoods — but Utah has been rolling out a state-funded online-only preschool, now serving around ten thousand children. Organizers announced the screen-based preschool effort will expand in 2019 with a federal grant to Wyoming, North Dakota, South Dakota, Idaho and Montana.

Lower-income teens spend an average of eight hours and seven minutes a day using screens for entertainment, while higher income peers spend five hours and 42 minutes, according to research by Common Sense Media, a nonprofit media watchdog. (This study counted each screen separately, so a child texting on a phone and watching TV for one hour counted as two hours of screens being used.) Two studies that look at race have found that white children are exposed to screens significantly less than African-American and Hispanic children.

And parents say there is a growing technological divide between public and private schools even in the same community. While the private Waldorf School of the Peninsula, popular with Silicon Valley executives, eschews most screens, the nearby public Hillview Middle School advertises its 1:1 iPad program.

The psychologist Richard Freed, who wrote a book about the dangers of screen-time for kids and how to connect them back to real world experiences, divides his time between speaking before packed rooms in Silicon Valley and his clinical practice with low-income families in the far East Bay, where he is often the first one to tell parents that limiting screen-time might help with attention and behavior issues.

“I go from speaking to a group in Palo Alto who have read my book to Antioch, where I am the first person to mention any of these risks,” Dr. Freed said.

In Silicon Valley, some feel anxious about the growing class divide they see around screen-time.

Kirstin Stecher and her husband, who works as an engineer at Facebook, are raising their kids almost completely screen-free.

“Is this coming from a place of information — like, we know a lot about these screens,” she said. “Or is it coming from a place of privilege, that we don’t need them as badly?”

“There’s a message out there that your child is going to be crippled and in a different dimension if they’re not on the screen,” said Pierre Laurent, a former Microsoft and Intel executive now on the board of trustees at Silicon Valley’s Waldorf School. “That message doesn’t play as well in this part of the world.”

“People in this region of the world understand that the real thing is everything that’s happening around big data, AI, and that is not something that you’re going to be particularly good at because you have a cellphone in fourth grade,” Mr. Laurent said.

As those working to build products become more wary, the business of getting screens in front of kids is booming. Apple and Google compete ferociously to get products into schools and target students at an early age, when brand loyalty begins to form.

Google published a case study of its work with the Hoover City, Ala., school district, saying technology equips students “with skills of the future.”

The concluded that its own Chromebooks and Google tools changed lives: “The district leaders believe in preparing students for success by teaching them the skills, knowledge, and behaviors they need to become responsible citizens in the global community.”

Dr. Freed, though, argues these tools are too relied upon in schools for low-income children. And he sees the divide every day as he meets tech-addicted children of middle and low-income families.

“For a lot of kids in Antioch, those schools don’t have the resources for extracurricular activities, and their parents can’t afford nannies,” Dr. Freed said. He said the knowledge gap around tech’s danger is enormous.

Dr. Freed and 200 other psychologists petitioned the American Psychological Association in August to formally condemn the work psychologists are doing with persuasive design for tech platforms that are designed for children.

“Once it sinks its teeth into these kids, it’s really hard,” Dr. Freed said.

Read more from The New York Times.

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