With Expanded Digital Access, Wasting Time Is the New Divide

Article excerpt

In the 1990s, the term "digital divide" emerged to describe technology's haves and have-nots. It inspired many efforts to get the latest computing tools into the hands of all Americans, particularly low-income families.

Those efforts have indeed shrunk the divide. But they have created an unintended side effect, one that is surprising and troubling to researchers and policymakers 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, policymakers 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.

"I'm not anti-technology at home, but it's not a savior," said Laura Robell, the principal at Elmhurst Community Prep, a public middle school in East Oakland, Calif., who has long doubted the value of putting a computer in every home without proper oversight.

"So often we have parents come up to us and say, 'I have no idea how to monitor Facebook,'" she said.

The new divide is such a cause of concern for the Federal Communications Commission that it is considering a proposal to spend $200 million to create a digital literacy corps. This group of hundreds, even thousands, of trainers would fan out to schools and libraries to teach productive uses of computers for parents, students and job seekers.

Separately, the commission will help send digital literacy trainers this fall to organizations like the Boys and Girls Club, the League of United Latin American Citizens, and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Some of the financial support for this program, part of a broader initiative called Connect2Compete, comes from private companies like Best Buy and Microsoft.

These efforts complement a handful of private and state projects aimed at paying for digital trainers to teach everything from basic keyboard use and word processing to how to apply for jobs online or use filters to block children from seeing online pornography.

"Digital literacy is so important," said Julius Genachowski, chairman of the commission, adding that bridging the digital divide now also means "giving parents and students the tools and know-how to use technology for education and job-skills training."

FCC officials and other policymakers say they still want to get computing devices into the hands of every American. That gaps remains wide -- according to the commission, about 65 percent of all Americans have broadband access at home, but that figure is 40 percent in households with less than $20,000 in annual income. …