The “Digital Divide,” Time-Wasting and the Have-Nots: A Hint on the Importance of Effort

Posted on June 26, 2012


The New York Times ran an article last month bemoaning the “new digital divide.”  Back in the 1990s, Matt Richtel writes, the term “digital divide” referred to the gap between those who were wealthy enough to afford computers and internet access, and those who were not.  The perception at the time was that computers and internet access were an educational advantage which was essentially denied to the poor, thus widening the education gap.  After some efforts to shrink that digital divide, a new pattern has emerged:

Those efforts have indeed shrunk the divide. But they have created an unintended side effect, one that is surprising and troubling to researchers and policy makers and that the government now wants to fix.  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.  This growing time-wasting gap, policy makers and researchers say, is more a reflection of the ability of parents to monitor and limit how children use technology than of access to it.

So of course the government (in this case, the FCC) is exploring funding to address the problem of “digital literacy.”  But that’s not the problem, and I don’t think that the observed time-wasting was a “side effect” at all.  It’s just a continuation of an underlying problem that has been there all along:  a lack of parental involvement, of discipline, of application of effort.  If a kid can stay up all night playing video games or tinkering on Facebook, he is “digitally literate” enough to use a word-processing program to write an essay.  It’s just that the essay is a bore, and Facebook is fun, and the parents are not enforcing the kids’ homework assignments.

As for the argument that we have to make the parents digitally literate in order for them to police their kids’ computer activity, I don’t buy it.  It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to notice that a video game is not the essay your kid is supposed to be writing.  It’s just a matter of parental involvement, and it’s not so different from the pre-digital era.  It’s pretty much the same scenario as noticing that your kid is yakking on the phone, or watching TV, or reading comic books instead of doing his homework.  It’s the same scenario as falling for your kid’s line that he has no homework, night after night.  You have to pay attention, and then you have to do something about it, and you have to be tough enough not to let your kid get away with throwing a tantrum for being required to put away his fun and do his homework.  This is old-school stuff, and tossing a few blinky lights and a screen in there does not change that or make it somehow new and mysterious.

When I was in college, I had a part-time job working with a very motley crew.  One of the older employees was illiterate.  He had been born in the 1920s in a very rural area, and after third grade he left school and began to work.  He could sign something resembling his name, but that was all.  He did not have a bank account; he cashed his paycheck and lived on the cash until his next payday.  To hide his illiteracy, he carried a pair of drug-store magnifying glasses.  If he needed a phone number, he would say he forgot his glasses and have someone else look up the number for him.  But that man was smart.  His daughter eventually went on to law school and made him the proudest father in that workplace.  And although he could not read, I cannot imagine for two seconds that she could ever have fooled him concerning the state of her homework.  I would argue that today’s “digitally illiterate” parents are certainly not at any more of a disadvantage than my old co-worker.  But he was an involved parent, and wanted his daughter to have what he did not, and she earned it.

Digital devices provide ample opportunity for time-wasting, but they don’t actively promote it.  Choosing easy, fun entertainment over the mental effort required for a good education is a long-established pattern among under-achievers, and parents who choose to make excuses, ignore their kids’ behavior and slack off on discipline have a long-established history as enablers of that under-achievement.