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.
Black households are disproportionately less likely to be headed by married parents, so black teenagers would already use more social media than their white counterparts. But race is also independently correlated with screen use. In white households with married parents, 54.7 percent of teens spend less than an hour a day on screens; in the same category of black families, that figure is 28.4 percent. The trend carries through to social media: 17.2 of white teenagers from married two-parent families spent more than an hour and 30 minutes on social media; 32.1 percent of black teenagers in those families spent that much time.
These results are consistent with other, earlier surveys from Common Sense Media and Northwestern University. In fact, in the decade leading up to the BYU study, the gap between minority and white youths’ daily media use doubled.
For anyone concerned about racial gaps in academic achievement, obesity and even attention disorders, these numbers should raise alarms.
As of 2016, 87 percent of white students in grade 12 scored ahead of average black 12th-graders in reading. Time spent on screens is taking away from time spent on homework, reading for pleasure and even the kind of face-to-face conversations that we know increase young children’s vocabularies.
Black children are already more likely to exhibit symptoms of attention deficit disorders, researchers believe. Excessive screen time is associated with higher odds of a child subsequently having attention problems. Black children are about 1.5 times as likely to be obese as white children. Time spent with screens means less time spent outside and engaged in any kind physical activity. Children (and adults, too, for that matter) tend to eat unhealthful food, and more of it, when they are in front of screens.
As more and more upper-class parents, Silicon Valley executives among them, become aware of the problems caused by excessive screen time, they are restricting their own children’s use. But unfortunately — and perhaps unsurprisingly, given the tech industry’s economic interests — they do not seem to be preaching what they practice.
Just as our elites downplayed the importance of marriage for family stability and economic success even while continuing to marry at the same rates, so it seems we have adopted a double standard for screen time. For their own kids, they have realized the problems and are cutting back on media usage. For the rest of the country’s children, well, they can’t wait to give them more.