The New ‘Digital Divide’? Wasting Time With Technology

For nearly twenty years, people have been worried about the digital divide: the gap between those who have access to technology and those who do not. Because of the key roles that tech plays in our lives, especially in the economic realm, it has the potential to create even deeper rifts in our society. Most of the time, discussion of the issue deals with how to get tech into the hands of socioeconomically disadvantaged.

Unfortunately, the connection between tech and success turns out to be complex. For instance, back in 2010, Jacob L. Vigdor and Helen F. Ladd published a study for the National Bureau of Economic Research entitled “Scaling the Digital Divide.” The study dug deeper into the numbers on academic lives of students, tracing the connection between success, failure, and computers in the home. They detail lots of trends, but one thing they clearly showed was that access to computers and broadband does not correlate directly with improved acheivement. Indeed, later introduction of computers into households without effective parental monitoring of child behavior can be harmful. One thing they noted—late adopters, “Students who gain access to a home computer between 5th and 8th grade tend to witness a persistent decline in reading and math test scores.”

Las week, Matt Richtel published a solid overview of the current front in the digital divide, good habits:

“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…

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 policy makers, Ms. 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.

Hmmm. That sounds pretty familiar.

To put it another way, technology takes part in larger personal, familial, and social dynamics. This is something we all face. Jared Diamond (among others) has noted that technologies are adopted in cultures when they fit the existing social and economic purposes. The same seems to be true personally. We start by using tech to do what we are already used to doing.

The new front in the digital divide is the old front in the digital revolution: figuring out how to create good, balanced habits—virtues if you will—of tech use rather. That’s something we all have to face.

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