The term “digital divide” is receding in conversations, thanks to efforts by the government and policymakers to make broadband computers more accessible to low-income families. However, the closing of one gap has seemed to open another, and the Federal Communications Commission is concerned.
“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,” wrote New York Times reporter Matt Richtel. This new disparity has been dubbed the “time-wasting gap,” and the F.C.C. is considering a proposal to spend $200 million on a “digital literacy corps” designed to close it.
According to the New York Times, the corps would comprise hundreds, possibly thousands, of trained experts to teach digital literacy education to students, parents, and job seekers in schools and libraries. Richtel reported that the F.C.C. would also send digital literacy trainers to various organizations like the Boys & Girls Clubs, the League of United Latin Americans, and the NAACP. Financial support for the program comes from a broader initiative called Connect2Compete.
Richtel pointed to a 2010 study published by the Kaiser Family Foundation that reported children and teens whose parents do not have a college degree spent 90 minutes more per day exposed to media than children from higher socioeconomic families, a difference that was only 16 minutes the year prior.
According to researchers and policymakers, this “time-wasting gap” is more a reflection of parents’ ability to monitor and limit how children use the technology in their homes, and has little to do with accessibility. That being said, the “digital divide” is by no means closed, and F.C.C. officials still aim to get computers into the hands of every American. Richtel mentions a few statistics from the commission:
F.C.C. officials and other policy makers 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.
However, this digital divide only considers access at home. As researchers like S. Craig Watkins show, minority youth are rapid adopters of mobile media, which reduces the gap.
But Watkins also worries that the participation gap, as he calls it, is threatening something larger. “Is it possible,” he asks in a recent post, “that mobile devices are reproducing some of America’s most enduring inequalities?” Minority youth have indeed adopted mobile phones at rapid scale, surpassing white teens in use. But they are not getting hooked in to the mentoring and rich out-of-school opportunities that show them how to use those digital tools in more meaningful ways.
“Not all media ecologies are equal,” he writes in a recent blog. “Thus it’s very possible that if poor and working class students adopt technologies like mobile phones in environments that do not offer adult engagement and scaffolding the potential benefits in terms of learning and empowerment may not be realized.”
Referring to the web of in-school and out-of-school opportunities to learn and grow, Watkins asks whether these “learning ecologies” (which now include digital media) will be distributed and accessible to youth across all incomes and race-ethnicities in ways that will close the sobering learning divide we have before us today.
Commission chairman Julius Genachowski would agree with Watkins. Closing the gap isn’t just about access. “Digital literacy is so important,” he said, and added 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.” It must also mean giving kids equal access to rich opportunities beyond the home in using technology to advance their lives.