In the 1990s, the term “digital divide” emerged to describe technology’s haves and have-nots. It inspired many efforts to get the latest computing tools into the hands of all Americans, particularly low-income families.
Those efforts have indeed shrunk the divide. But they have created an unintended side effect, one that is surprising and troubling to researchers and policymakers and that the government now wants to fix.
As access to devices has spread, 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, policymakers 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.
“I’m not anti-technology at home, but it’s not a savior,” said Laura Robell, the principal at Elmhurst Community Prep, a public middle school in East Oakland, Calif., who has long doubted the value of putting a computer in every home without proper oversight.
“So often we have parents come up to us and say, ‘I have no idea how to monitor Facebook,”’ she said.
The new divide is such a cause of concern for the Federal Communications Commission that it is considering a proposal to spend $200 million to create a digital literacy corps. This group of hundreds, even thousands, of trainers would fan out to schools and libraries to teach productive uses of computers for parents, students and job seekers.
Separately, the commission will help send digital literacy trainers this fall to organizations like the Boys and Girls Club, the League of United Latin American Citizens, and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Some of the financial support for this program, part of a broader initiative called Connect2Compete, comes from private companies like Best Buy and Microsoft.
These efforts complement a handful of private and state projects aimed at paying for digital trainers to teach everything from basic keyboard use and word processing to how to apply for jobs online or use filters to block children from seeing online pornography.
“Digital literacy is so important,” said Julius Genachowski, chairman of the commission, adding that bridging the digital divide now also means “giving parents and students the tools and know-how to use technology for education and job-skills training.”
FCC officials and other policymakers say they still want to get computing devices into the hands of every American. That gaps remains wide — according to the commission, about 65 percent of all Americans have broadband access at home, but that figure is 40 percent in households with less than $20,000 in annual income. Half of all Hispanics and 41 percent of African-American homes lack broadband.
But “access is not a panacea,” said Danah Boyd, a senior researcher at Microsoft. “Not only does it not solve problems, it mirrors and magnifies existing problems we’ve been ignoring.”
Like other researchers and policymakers, Boyd said the initial push to close the digital divide did not anticipate how computers would be used for entertainment.
“We failed to account for this ahead of the curve,” she said.
A study published in 2010 by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that children and teenagers whose parents do not have a college degree spent 90 minutes more per day exposed to media than children from higher socioeconomic families. In 1999, the difference was just 16 minutes.
The study found that children of parents who do not have a college degree spend 11.5 hours each day exposed to media from a variety of sources, including television, computer and other gadgets. That is an increase of 4 hours and 40 minutes per day since 1999.
Children of more educated parents, generally understood as a proxy for higher socioeconomic status, also largely use their devices for entertainment. In families in which a parent has a college education or an advanced degree, Kaiser found, children use 10 hours of multimedia a day, a 3.5-hour jump since 1999. (Kaiser double counts time spent multitasking. If a child spends an hour simultaneously watching TV and surfing the Internet, the researchers counted two hours.)
“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,” said Vicky Rideout, author of the decade-long Kaiser study. “Instead of closing the achievement gap, they’re widening the time-wasting gap.”
Policymakers and researchers say the challenges are heightened for parents and children with fewer resources — the very people who were supposed to be helped by closing the digital divide.
The concerns are brought to life in families like those of Markiy Cook, a thoughtful 12-year-old in Oakland who loves technology.
At home, where money is tight, his family has two laptops, an Xbox 360 and a Nintendo Wii, and he has his own phone. He uses them mostly for Facebook, YouTube, texting and playing games.
He particularly likes playing them on the weekends.
“I stay up all night, until like 7 in the morning,” he said, laughing sheepishly. “It’s why I’m so tired on Monday.”
His grades are suffering. His grade-point average is barely over 1.0, putting him at the bottom of his class. He wants to be a biologist when he grows up, he said.
Markiy attends Elmhurst Community Prep, located in a rough area (the school has a tribute hanging in its hallway to a 15-year-old girl recently stabbed to death by the father of her baby). Thirty-five percent of the students, like Markiy, are black, and most of the rest are Hispanic.
Alejandro Zamora, 13, an eighth-grader, calls himself “a Facebook freak.” His mother, Olivia Montesdeoca, said she liked the idea of him using the computer (until it recently broke) but did not have much luck getting him to use it for homework.
“He’d have a fit. He’d have a tantrum,” she said, adding that she really did not understand some of what he did online. “I have no idea about YouTube. I’ve never even heard of a webcam.”
Robell, the principal, said children need to know how to use technology to compete, but her priorities for her students are more basic — “Breakfast, lunch and dinner.”
Many lower-income families take great pains to manage how their children use their devices.
In Boston, Amy and Randolph Ross, neither of them a college graduate — she works in a hospital and he at a bookstore — recently bought their twin 15-year-old girls laptop computers as a reward for good grades. The parents make sure the computers are used mostly for homework or for the girls to explore their interest as budding musicians.
“If you just buy the computer and don’t guide them on the computer, of course it’s going to be misused,” Amy Ross said.
Her mother-in-law, Edna Ross, the matriarch of their African-American family who lives nearby in Dorchester, Mass., feels the same way. She got a new Hewlett-Packard computer last year through a project funded by the National Institutes of Health intended to provide both access and nine months of digital literacy training.
Edna Ross is strict about how her grandchildren use the computer when they visit. One of her grandsons once sneaked onto the computer and put a picture of himself on his Facebook page making an obscene gesture.
She told him if he could not control himself, he could not use the computer. Training, she said, is crucial.
“If you already have a child who feels like anything goes and you put a computer in his hand,” she said, “he’s going to do the first negative thing he can find to do when he gets on the computer.”