There is still a digital divide, and it may be growing wider.
Four brilliant, privileged and geeky friends of mine, Katherine Barr, Josh Elman, Robert Scoble, and Randi Zuckerberg, appeared recently on a panel at the First Ever MamaBear Conference hosted by 500 Startups. (Yes, they’re also friends of mine.) The topic was how their children interact with technology. Their kids are toddlers. I watched because 1)I love these people and 2)I’ve got grandkids.
Most of the discussion revolved around how their toddlers relate to iPads and iPhones, and how naturally technological literacy comes to them. Josh’s daughter tried to swipe a TV set in a hotel room. Some of these parents were concerned about how much time their children spent with devices as babysitters, or how their kids picked up on the parents’ habits of multi-tasking and not giving their kids their full attention. While they were proud their children could operate every device from age two on, I thought it was an inevitability, knowing them.
And then there are the children I see. My foster daughter just had a baby, and has a child almost five. Her 5-year-old was recently tested for kindergarten and found to be behind in certain areas. My daughter cried, thinking she was a failure after she had tried so hard to keep him with her as much as possible. She herself dropped out of school in 8th grade, and probably reads at the fifth grade level. When he was little, both he and she were briefly homeless, living in her car. At other times, she has worked full time. While she says she reads to him, she also has difficulty keeping his attention.
My foster son and his wife have a 2-year-old. This child, who can exit from anything you strap him into like Harry Houdini, figured out how doors and windows work as soon as he was tall enough to reach knobs, and has been an escape artist since he discovered my dog door soon after he began to crawl. He’s smart as a whip, but without a device he will never sit still to learn to read. Both of his parents work full time and attend college full time. He is often at day care, where there are is no technology.
My response to these circumstances is to buy each child a device of his own. While I love my foster daughter dearly, not only does she have a significant other and a newborn, she also doesn’t have much technological competency of her own to pass on. She can use Facebook, but that’s where it ends. When she was with me, I taught her how to use computers, but she didn’t have the day-to-day access that children of means take for granted. My son and daughter-in-law are more advanced, because they attend a community college. But they’re using their phones themselves.
Any discussion of whether too much interaction with technology will harm these children, which is a discussion many more privileged parents have with each other, is moot.
I worry they’re not getting enough interaction with it. Although they do things children with more structured lives don’t have time to do, like play outside with other kids on the block, they don’t do the things that will help them up the ladder higher up in the middle class their parents struggled to enter. In order for these kids to avoid the tribulations their parents had, they are going to have to develop the same habits Randi’s and Robert’s and Josh’s and Katherine’s kids have.
The iPad and its Android relatives aren’t just things that take kids away from human relationships. In the case of my foster grandchildren, they are problem-solving tutors, teaching them skills they will need to succeed in a world where their parents still struggle to compete.