Is screen time for kids good or bad? It can be both.

A recent New York Times article (The Digital Gap Between Rich and Poor Kids Is Not What We Expected) makes the case that schools are promoting too much use of computers, by saying that “America’s public schools are still promoting devices with screens — even offering digital-only preschools. The rich are banning screens from class altogether.

But the article—and some of the people quoted in it—conflate two concepts that are in fact quite different from one another.

The first idea is that the amount of time kids spend on devices (mostly smartphone and tablets) has risen to unhealthy levels, and that children and teens in low-income families are on devices more than affluent kids. 

“It wasn’t long ago that the worry was that rich students would have access to the internet earlier, gaining tech skills and creating a digital divide…But now, as Silicon Valley’s parents increasingly panic over the impact screens have on their children and move toward screen-free lifestyles, worries over a new digital divide are rising. It could happen that the children of poorer and middle-class parents will be raised by screens, while the children of Silicon Valley’s elite will be going back to wooden toys and the luxury of human interaction.”

(snip)

“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, according to research by Common Sense Media, a nonprofit media watchdog.”

The second idea is that many schools, especially in low-income areas, are increasing their students’ use of computers, and that the schools’ use of online tools and resources is exacerbating this new digital divide.

But combining these ideas misses two major issues. First, children and teenagers are mostly spending time on social media or watching videos, and not on educational websites. Second, most educators understand the instructionally appropriate use of technology and how devices can and should be used in schools.  

The Times printed my letter in response, which stated:

The Digital Gap Between Rich and Poor Kids Is Not What We Expected recounts concerns among parents about children spending too much time on smart phones and tablets. These parents believe that schools and education technology companies share part of the blame for pushing the use of digital learning in schools, increasing the time that students spend with technology.

Worried parents might be surprised to learn that most experienced educational technology advocates agree with them. Thoughtful schools and companies understand that the use of digital learning must be educationally appropriate and balanced with time away from devices. Skilled teachers understand that digital resources complement classroom discussions. Computers don’t replace conversation.

Parents are rightly concerned about their children’s use of the Internet. But most can distinguish between kids clicking through social media for hours, compared to using school-sanctioned online tools to collaborate with other students on a class project.

It’s hard to know whether the Times is uncovering an issue that will resonate and spread to many parents and communities, or if the article is more hype than substance because wealthy Silicon Valley communities get more than their appropriate share of news coverage. But the article is a useful reminder of the need to consistently explain how online and blended learning can be used thoughtfully and appropriately, and to acknowledge that technology, like any other tool, can be used well or used poorly.

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