Studies on Kids and Tech Flip the Meaning of Digital Divide

Experts are coming to grips with the impact of digital technology on children. Educators worried that students from poor homes would find themselves on the wrong side of the digital divide, but, in fact, many states are spending money to make sure that all their students have access to computers, while Silicon Valley parents are choosing to raise their children with traditional toys and non-digital activities. The reason is that technologists are privy to recent research about the dangers of exposing kids to screen time.

The New York Times reports that Utah has debuted a state-funded online-only preschool serving 10,000 children, and “the screen-based preschool effort would expand in 2019 with a federal grant to Wyoming, North Dakota, South Dakota, Idaho and Montana.”

According to Common Sense Media research, “lower-income teenagers 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.” Two other studies revealed that, “white children are exposed to screens significantly less than African-American and Hispanic children.”

Psychologist Richard Freed, author of a book about the dangers of screen time for children, is especially concerned about “how the psychologists who work for these companies make the tools phenomenally addictive, as many are well-versed in the field of persuasive design (or how to influence human behavior through the screen).” “The digital divide was about access to technology, and now that everyone has access, the new digital divide is limiting access to technology,” said former Wired editor Chris Anderson. Even so, Google and Apple “compete ferociously to get products into schools and target students at an early age.”

Elsewhere, NYT takes a deeper dive into the growing consensus that screen time is bad for children, with the threats of addiction and stunting development and overblown promises of educational benefits. Apple chief executive Tim Cook stated he would not let his nephew join social networks, and Bill and Melinda Gates wouldn’t let their children have cellphones until they were teenagers. Even Steve Jobs kept his young children away from iPads.

Now, “rank-and-file Silicon Valley workers are obsessed … [and] no-tech homes are cropping up across the region.” Nannies are signing no-phone contracts, and Greylock Partners/former Mozilla chief executive John Lilly “tries to help his 13-year-old son understand that he is being manipulated by those who built the technology.”

Anderson, now chief executive of a robotics and drone company, calls screens “closer to crack cocaine” than candy, on a hypothetical scale. “We thought we could control it,” he said. “And this is beyond our power to control. This is going straight to the pleasure centers of the developing brain … We glimpsed into the chasm of addiction, and there were some lost years, which we feel bad about.”