The ubiquity and utility of electronic devices has transformed almost every facet of modern life, from sparking popular uprisings to making the wristwatch obsolete. But for too many kids, computers are still being used much like a more than half-century old technology: television.
According to a study by the Kaiser Family Foundation, kids 8 to 18 years old spend more than nine hours a day with their electronic gadgets, including time on cell phones and texting. Those with lower incomes or less-educated parents spend — or waste — more time playing games, watching videos, and in other forms of passive entertainment than do their peers. Educational or job-related uses are rare.
The digital divide that had policymakers so worried 10 years ago has narrowed dramatically: Almost 90 percent of young people have access to a computer at home regardless of race, class, or level of parental education. In fact, the study found that Hispanic and black youth spend slightly more time online than do whites — at least for recreational purposes. What’s missing are meaningful limits by parents or other adults, and a deeper, more confident understanding of the Internet’s promise and peril.
In other words, the digital divide today is not so much about the quantity of access lower-income people have to electronic devices, but the quality.
To help bridge what The New York Times recently called the “time-wasting gap,” the Federal Communications Commission and a group of nonprofits announced a $200 million initiative to expand broadband access to low-income and rural communities, and to create a digital literacy corps to fan out across America and teach computer skills, mostly through schools and libraries.
What’s missing are meaningful limits by adults and a deeper understanding of the Internet’s promise and peril.
That’s fine as far as it goes. But the digital skills being promoted are exceedingly basic: how to use a computer; how to search on the web; how to create and upload a document, such as a resume. It’s a safe bet that many young people know how to do that already, or can quickly learn.
“The mechanics are not the problem,” says Dean Miller, director of the Center for News Literacy at Stony Brook University on Long Island. “The problem is the universal, ageless question of critical thinking skills applied to digital information.”
I spent a semester last year researching news literacy in the digital age, mostly at Stony Brook, where 10,000 students are being taught to be more discerning consumers of news. Overwhelmingly, I found that even fairly sophisticated students had no idea what to trust online. “It’s all propaganda,” was a familiar refrain.
Instead, the students tended to trust each other. Most reported getting their information through Facebook postings or Twitter feeds from their friends and followers. This hall-of-mirrors effect severely limits exposure to new ideas, reinforces biases and, to put it mildly, isn’t always reliable.
Still, the current array of information sources online is so bewildering, and so lacking in trusted guideposts, that it’s no wonder young people of all demographics stick to Fruit Ninja or Tumblr. They don’t need to be taught what the escape key does. They need the skills to navigate the cluttered, often chaotic digital landscape; to check sources for accuracy and independence; to recognize a hoax; to learn the hidden tricks of marketers and deceivers; to feel confident behind the keyboard.
They need — as tech guru Clay Johnson cleverly puts it in his book “The Information Diet” — to consume information lower down on the food chain, closer to the original source, and avoid the empty mental calories of the highly-processed junk that’s all around. Unfortunately, that’s a program that can’t be taught in a few workshops at the local Y.