Policymakers agree. Just this month, the federal government announced that it is providing $103 million to expand access to those areas of rural America not yet reached by high-speed Internet. Comcast also recently unveiled "Internet Essentials" - its plan to offer $150 computers and $10/month Internet access to low-income customers. (Families with a child who qualifies for a free meal under the national school lunch program are eligible.) The plan comes at the behest of the Federal Communications Commission, which approved Comcast's purchase of NBC Universal earlier this year.
The vast majority of teens in America are, by no stretch of the imagination, "digitally detached." In fact, a recent study from the Pew Center for the Internet and the Family finds that 93 percent of 12- to 17-year olds are online. What makes a program like Internet Essentials important is that it can change how and where many at-risk youth access the Internet. The Pew study found that the primary way teens in the lowest income category go online is through their cell phones. Cell-phone technology is pretty amazing, but it's impossible to thoroughly research and write a term paper or get data needed for an excel spreadsheet on a screen smaller than an ATM card.
The current "digital divide" is no longer just a binary question of who has Internet access and who does not. It's a question of how consistent, powerful, and flexible the Internet connection is, and whether students have the opportunity to practice the computer skills that will give them school and employment advantages.
Studies show that technological access, in and of itself, is not a silver bullet for eliminating educational disparities. Researchers at Duke University found that middle-school students who have access to a home computer get better grades, are more likely to graduate from high school, and are less likely to be suspended than those who don't. But here's the rub: when they looked closely at the data they found that children from low-income households with home computers did worse in math and reading than those without. The opposite was true in higher-income homes. Why? The researchers say "unproductive uses" of technology may crowd out productive computer time and offline studying. My sense is that children who live in homes where parents don't have experience with computers don't get the guidance and monitoring they need to use the technology successfully.
Studies of computer use outside the home also show just how important it is to teach children what to do with computers and how to make the most of what's available on the web. A study conducted in Philadelphia by Susan Neuman and Donna Celano found that the introduction of new technology into the city's libraries actually widened the divide in the quality of library use and practice of literacy skills. Children in low-income communities received little parent mentoring on the computer, spent considerable waiting in line for a library computer, and played computer games with little or no textual content. In contrast, parents in middle-income communities spent more time overseeing what their children were doing on the computer and their children played considerably more reading-based computer games.
The technology divide may be narrowing, but the digital-use divide is widening. Connecting children to computers and to the Internet can be a transformative experience, and can open children up to worlds that are creative, connective, and inspiring. But without the participation of parents, teachers, and peers to provide an educational scaffold, the technology has the potential to collapse into a heap of frustration and distraction for children who don't have proper human support.
Amy B. Jordan is director of the Media and the Developing Child Sector of the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.