In February, the Atlanta Public Schools announced that every one of its 6,000 middle school students would receive a new laptop with wireless Internet access, which superintendent Meria Carstarphen called “the tools they need to succeed both in school and at home.” Likewise, to combat St. Louis’s “digital divide,” schools have given children low-cost laptops, and local libraries are loaning out as many broadband “hotspot” devices as they can. Virginia’s Arlington County is providing free WiFi to low-income residents with school-age children.
But what problem are they trying to solve? The “digital divide” commonly refers to the question of who has access to the Internet, but at least when it comes to race and income, that gap is pretty insignificant. Policymakers are too busy bridging a fake divide to notice the real one right under their noses. The real divide is actually in time spent on screens, and there, the gap is enormous. The children at the disadvantage are the ones who have more access to screens, not less.
According to 2018 data from the Pew Research Center, white, black and Hispanic Americans use the Internet at virtually identical rates. The same is true among teens, for whom smartphone use is “nearly universal.” Even when it comes to computers, the differences are minimal: Slightly fewer Hispanic teens have access to these devices, but even then, 82 percent of them use computers. Income doesn’t make a major difference in Internet access, either.
The amount of time teenagers spend on those devices, however, is significantly affected by both race and family structure.
According to new data provided to me by the American Family Survey, from Deseret News and the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy at Brigham Young University, in families headed by two married, biological parents, 49 percent of teens spend less than an hour on screens per day and only 15.1 percent spend more than three hours. In households led by single, divorced or cohabiting parents, 31.9 percent of teenagers spend more than three hours a day on screens. That pattern holds for other forms of media: Teenagers who are growing up in homes with married biological parents are much less likely to spend a great deal of time on social media and video games.
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