A decade ago, children in low socioeconomic brackets seemed destined to lag behind their wealthy peers in knowledge of and experience with technology, possibly harming their future job prospects and educational opportunities. Advocates and sociologists worried that the limited access poor kids had to technology—in comparison to rich kids—would set them back for life.
Fast forward to today, and this concern has proven surprisingly irrelevant.
A recent article in the New York Times revealed that the digital gap between the rich and the poor has morphed into something completely unexpected: the privilege of opting out.
“The digital divide was about access to technology, and now that everyone has access, the new digital divide is limiting access to technology,” Chris Anderson, the former editor of Wired magazine, told the Times.
In response to growing awareness about the harmful effects of too much screen time and the often toxic culture of adolescent social media, wealthy parents have become more likely to enforce major limits on their children’s tech time. While in the past it was assumed that the future was digital, more research is indicating that too much technology exposure is making our kids less emotionally intelligent, less socially adept, and more likely to suffer from attention deficits. Parents with higher education levels, who tend to have more time and attention to devote to their parenting choices, are using this information to implement greater restrictions on their kids’ usage of screens and devices.
As a mom, I have seen this play out in the past year in my own community. My husband and I have always implemented more restricted screen time rules than the average modern home. We want our kids to have ample time to develop skills of imaginative play, emotional intelligence, and conflict resolution. Many of our friends from similar educational and financial backgrounds have set the same limitations. In our town, at least, middle-to-upper class parents tend to value natural, exploratory play more than screen time.
However, my sons and I are lucky enough to have friendships with families that cross socioeconomic lines, and I can’t help but notice that the kids from families who have less money and education tend to use technology more. The parents, just as devoted as I, have either not been exposed to the latest research cautioning media usage or they rely on screens to occupy the kids while they manage the extreme stress of single parenting or working multiple jobs. My experience confirms what the New York Times reported: lower-income kids are more likely to spend more time playing video games than playing outside, are more likely to be given a personal phone at an earlier age, and are more likely to demonstrate addictive tendencies with their devices.
But the problem isn’t just at home. According to the Times, as wealthier families begin eschewing tech-heavy education in favor of hands-on schools like Montessori and Waldorf, or even jumping on the growing “unschooling” trend, underperforming public schools are still scrambling to get each of their students plugged in, via Chromebooks or iPads in the classroom.
After reading the Times article, I called my sister Elise, who is a public school teacher in Colorado, to see if these trends correspond with her own experience. She confirmed that they did. For example, the last school she taught in boasted a 1:1 iPad ratio, a standard of technology that was once considered prestigious but is quickly losing popularity as concern for device-reliance grows among parents. In fact, Elise told me that the only complaints she or the school ever received about their heavy use of iPads were from the few wealthy parents. Lower-income parents, she said, never once complained. Without exposure to cutting-edge discussion of such matters, it didn’t occur to them that every kid having a school-issued iPad could be anything but positive.
As they compete with the stimulation and instant gratification of screens, Elise reports that she and her peers feel they work twice as hard to keep the attention of their kids compared to teachers even one generation ago. In these educators’ experience, the task of simply keeping children engaged and excited about learning is exhausting.
Of course, it wouldn’t be wise to argue for technology to be removed from schools completely. There is a place for this type of learning. So the question here is one of justice: how do we ensure that all children receive education, both at school and at home, that is holistic, social, and healthy? Seeing as the affluent pioneered the mass addiction to technology, it seems critically unfair that we would now leave poor children to continued exposure to the problems it causes. The truth is that the threads of our society are woven together. If at-risk children are deprived of the benefits that come from hands-on, social, and emotional interactions, we will all suffer the consequences.
So what can we do? Here are a few ideas.
01. We can model appropriately restricted technology usage in our own homes, first and foremost, whether or not we have children.
If we desire a community that prioritizes emotional intelligence and communal strength, we have to be willing to be the first to unplug. But considering the fact that most adults today use some form of screen for work, news, relationships, and entertainment, setting limits on our own usage is often harder than we’d like to admit. Simple ground rules like no screens during meals or in bedrooms, and turning off electronics at the same time every night, can go a long way in creating a balanced, person-centered life, whether or not you are a parent.
Of course, those of us raising children have the additional task of determining what role technology and media will have in the lives of our sons and daughters—considering not only age-appropriate time limits, but also things like parental controls and shared passwords. For a more detailed approach, the American Academy of Pediatrics offers a customizable media plan for each member of your family that could be a great starting point.
02. We can invest in the health of our local schools—whether as involved parents, teachers, staff, or even just concerned community members.
Although it may feel more natural to seek involvement in a school if you have a child attending there (or you are on staff), any community member offering their time and energy is usually eagerly welcomed as a volunteer. We can advocate for programs within the school system that enhance positive social and behavioral feedback and appropriate use of technology. If you feel concerned about the lack of such efforts in your local school, you can voice suggestions to the administration or even in a school board meeting that is open to the public.
Additionally, mentoring a child who is at risk can provide a personal relationship that fosters positive social and emotional interactions apart from technology. We can mentor a child, whether through the school, Boys and Girls Clubs of America, a local initiative, or a faith community.
03. We can support (or start!) community initiatives at our local library.
The public library is a bridge of resources between people of all walks of life; often we aren’t even aware of the multitude of programs, lectures, or gatherings offered there. Familiarize yourself with what is available to your community, both initiatives that teach proper technology usage and those that encourage tech-free pleasures or social and emotional skills. Volunteer your time and assistance, or consider starting a program that you feel is missing, knowing that those most affected are often the under-resourced.
Technology is an asset and even a gift—we only need look at the advances in science and medicine to see that—but there is a shadow side that we can’t afford to be oblivious to. If our already underprivileged children are the ones most likely to be hurt by our culture’s irresponsible usage of technology, we all have an obligation to do better for their sakes. So whatever path of action we take, let’s all show up for this—whether parents or not—so that every kid has the opportunity to grow into a well-rounded, competent, empathetic member of society.