The Digital Gap Between Rich and Poor Kids Is Not What We Expected

The Digital Gap Between Rich and Poor Kids Is Not What We Expected

America’s public schools are still promoting devices with screens — even offering digital-only preschools while the rich are banning screens from class altogether.

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.

And parents say there is a growing technological divide between public and private schools even in the same community. As more screens appear in the lives of the poor, screens are disappearing from the lives of the rich. The richer you are, the more you spend to be offscreen.

At the private Waldorf School, which promises a back-to-nature, nearly screen-free education popular with Silicon Valley executives, time on screens is increasingly seen as unhealthy and intentionally avoided. While the nearby public Hillview Middle School promotes its 1:1 iPad program.

WordPsychologist Richard Freed, who wrote a book about the dangers of screen-time for children and how to connect them back to real world experiences, divides his time between speaking before packed rooms in Silicon Valley and his clinical practice with low-income families in the far East Bay, where he is often the first one to tell parents that limiting screen-time might help with attention and behavior issues.

“There’s a message out there that your child is going to be crippled and in a different dimension if they’re not on the screen,” said Pierre Laurent, a former Microsoft and Intel executive now on the board of trustees at Silicon Valley’s Waldorf School. “That message doesn’t play as well in this part of the world.”

“For a lot of kids in low income communities, schools don’t have the resources for extracurricular activities, and their parents can’t afford nannies,” Dr. Freed said. The knowledge gap around tech’s danger is enormous.

Dr. Freed and 200 other psychologists petitioned the American Psychological Association in August to formally condemn the work psychologists are doing with persuasive design for tech platforms that are designed for children.

Screen exposure starts young. And children who spent more than two hours a day looking at a screen got lower scores on thinking and language tests, according to early results of a landmark study on brain development in more than 11,000 children, supported by the National Institutes of Health. Most disturbing, the study is finding that the brains of children who spend a lot of time on screens are different. For some kids, there is premature thinning of their cerebral cortex. In adults, one study found an association between screen time and depression.

A toddler who learns to build with virtual blocks in an iPad game gains no ability to build with actual blocks, according to Dimitri Christakis, a pediatrician at Seattle Children’s Hospital and a lead author of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ guidelines on screen time.

Wealthy families do not live like this. They have grown afraid of screens. They want their children to play with blocks, and tech-free private schools are booming. Humans are more expensive, and the wealthy are willing and able to pay for them. Conspicuous human interaction — living without a phone for a day, quitting social networks and not answering email — has become a status symbol.

All of this has led to a curious new reality: Human contact is becoming a luxury good. So as wealthy kids are growing up with less screen time, poor kids are growing up with more. How comfortable someone is with human engagement could become a new class marker.

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