Closing the Digital Time-wasting Gap

A smartphone is like a brain. Just having one doesn’t guarantee it will be used productively. Success in life depends on more than just having access to a smartphone or an Internet connection or a brain. Digital devices, like brains, can be used for learning and creating, but they can also be used for absorbing vast amounts of vapid entertainment. They can be used as tools for meaningful communication or for mindless chitchat and insipid social blather.

So, it is not too surprising to discover that initiatives to close the gap between those who have broadband Internet and related technologies and those who don’t (the digital divide) may not be raising the overall level of learning and creativity. In fact, the well-intended efforts may be widening the learning divide.

Studies show that tech access leads to media excess for kids in all socioeconomic strata. That’s worrisome in itself, but is to be expected. What wasn’t foreseen is that kids in poorer families tend to overindulge in entertainment media more than their peers in more well-off families.

A study published in 2010 by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that children and teenagers whose parents do not have a college degree spend 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 — an increase of 4 hours and 40 minutes per day since 1999. In families in which a parent has a college education or an advanced degree children use 10 hours of multimedia daily — an increase of 3 hours and 30 minutes per day since 1999.

Writing in the New York Times, Matt Richtel calls this emerging divide the “time-wasting gap.” He quotes Danah Boyd, a senior researcher at Microsoft as saying, “access is not a panacea…not only does it not solve problems, it mirrors and magnifies existing problems we’ve been ignoring.” Boyd notes that in our quest to close the digital divide we did not fully anticipate the overwhelming use of digital technology for entertainment. “We failed to account for this ahead of the curve,” she says.

The New York Times article anecdotally places part of the blame for the growing time-wasting gap on the lack of parental control, which is more acute in families where the parents do not have access to the technology but their kids do. Parents who lack digital literacy skills are less capable of monitoring the use of technology by their kids and lack the experience to teach digital scholarship and digital citizenship.

Ed. Note:

Well-meaning programs meant to close the digital divide have unwittingly afforded some kids in low-income families the means for further diversion from study and creative pursuits. The irony here is that those kids are likely to already be struggling with academics and, because of difficulties at home, might have even more reason for seeking out diversionary entertainment.

It is as if we decide that kids in low-income families need to do more reading so we send them free subscriptions to Marvel Comics and National Geographic and trust the kids to make the best choice.

That analogy is not completely apt, since most parents in any socioeconomic group would know which reading material is more edifying. In the online world, where many parents on both sides of the digital divide frequently have little or no experience, the kids are likely to be making those choices themselves. Hmm, let’s see. The You Tube Ultimate Dog Tease video? Or FRONTLINE’s report on Al Qaeda in Yemen?

The moral to the story is that the concept of a digital divide is misdirecting. Yes, there is a technology gap that closely follows economic lines. And yes, it should be eliminated. And yes, kids in one socioeconomic group might waste more time with digital media than those in another. But the digital divide is only a subset of the larger problem. The divide that needs the most attention is the brain-use gap, a gap that affects everyone in all social strata of all ages.

Sticking with the reading analogy, reading material and reading ability are only the means and the method to literacy. The third element is meaning. I’m not referring to the process of deriving meaning from content, though that is certainly a literacy requirement. I’m talking about asking and answering the question: What do these skills and resources mean to me? What does it mean for a child if he or she gains access to technology but uses it primarily for escapism? What does it mean for a society if its wired citizenry doesn’t grasp what that capability means to them, to their jobs, their families and their education? 

Literacy 2.0 is a life strategy and a lifestyle that must encompass means, method and meaning. Children need to be taught to find the meaning in the tools and resources given to them. They need to learn what the use of those things means to their futures. And the only way they will find out is to be experientially guided toward a literate understanding of what it means to use their time in rewarding pursuits and capacities.

It’s a great idea to give everybody digital devices and broadband access, but as with our brains, we all need to learn how to use them for more than watching something like this.

Photo by katybird


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