In the New Digital Divide, Kids in Poverty May Have Too Much Screen Time

It’s no longer about who has a tablet and who doesn’t.

The New Digital Divide

When technology was first being introduced in homes and schools, the digital divide meant that wealthier kids had more access to computers and high-speed Internet than those from low-income families.

These days, computers and mobile devices have become almost ubiquitous. Yet, just how technology is used to improve student learning can depend on where you live. This gap in quality has generated talk of a new digital divide in schools.

“We have moved from the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots.’ That problem is not as prevalent,” says Leslie Wilson, founder and chief executive officer of the nonprofit One-to-One Institute in Michigan. “Now the question is what we are we doing so [technology] is effective, useful and helpful but not detrimental.”

The evidence is not always there to support ed tech.

Although there has been lots hoopla in districts with 1-to-1 computer programs for every student, research does not always show learning gains follow. There is mounting concern about the time kids spend in front of screens and research to back up the worry. As much as technology has been hyped as an educational tool, it can also be a major distraction—and more so in low-income homes with less parental supervision.

The introduction of home computer technology was linked with a modest drop in student math and reading test scores, according to a study of North Carolina households by Jacob Vigdor, professor of public policy at the University of Washington. Although the data was from 2000 and 2005, Vigdor says with near universal access today, the trend likely continues. He suggests that computers have not translated into higher achievement and it’s been a costly experiment.


“If these things were miraculous improvers of student learning, we would see that in the test score data and we don’t. Those test scores are flat over the past 30 to 40 years,” says Vigdor.

We roll out new technology without rigorous testing.

“The people who sell technology have a strong incentive to demonstrate there is potential to draw kids in. But books can draw kids in too,” says Vigdor. “I don’t know [that technology] is all that remarkable in changing that way student interface with content.”

Parents who are aware of the negligible value of technology may be opting for low-tech programs in private schools, leaving those who cannot financially afford to make that choice stuck in schools with poor quality programs.

Solid tech implementation can make all the difference.

Wilson maintains that technology can make a positive difference, if districts know how to use it.

She describes an “implementation crisis” where districts introduce technology without guidance on how to use it. “It’s all about technology, not about practice, teaching and learning, the child and achievement,” Wilson says. “That’s a very entry-level approach that happens all the time.”

So how do schools tackle the new digital divide?

Despite challenges, Wilson says the uneven quality should not cast doubt on the value of learning with technology.

“There are many variables that go into a child’s learning outcomes,” she says. But controlled studies show students who access robust technology have higher problem solving and writing skills.

“The fear I have is that there are still places and schools that have not engaged technology. And that is a moral imperative because that is the world into which children will live in,” Wilson says.

More can be done in homes, too, to inform parents about how to regulate screen time.

We need to ask hard questions.

As budgets tighten, there may be a closer look at the return on the investment of technology in schools. Rather than rely on vendors for evidence that programs work, Vigdor says administrators need to look for controlled studies that demonstrate their effectiveness.

In the end, teachers and peers remain crucial, adds Wilson, if we’re going to use technology to enhance instruction in meaningful ways.

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