Not exactly a digital divide

Posted: June 14, 2012

The ubiquity and utility of electronic devices has transformed almost every facet of modern life, from sparking popular uprisings to making the wristwatch obsolete. But too many kids are still using computers much as they do a technology that's more than half a century old: television.

According to a study by the Kaiser Family Foundation, kids 8 to 18 years old spend more than nine hours a day with their electronic gadgets, including cellphones. Those with lower incomes or less educated parents spend — or waste — more time playing games, watching videos, and on other forms of passive entertainment than do their peers. Educational or job-related uses are rare.

The digital divide that had policymakers so worried 10 years ago has narrowed dramatically: Almost 90 percent of young people have access to a computer at home regardless of race, class, or parental education. In fact, Hispanic and black youths spend slightly more time online than whites.

What's missing are meaningful limits by parents or other adults, and a deeper understanding of the Internet's promise and peril. In other words, the digital divide today is not as much about quantity as quality.

To help bridge what the New York Times recently called the "time-wasting gap," the Federal Communications Commission and a group of nonprofits announced a $200 million initiative to expand broadband access to low-income and rural communities, and to create a digital literacy corps to fan out across America and teach computer skills.

That's fine as far as it goes. But the digital skills being promoted are exceedingly basic: how to use a computer; how to search the Web; how to create and upload a document. It's a safe bet that many young people know how to do that already or can quickly learn. "The mechanics are not the problem," said Dean Miller, director of the Center for News Literacy at Stony Brook University on Long Island. "The problem is the universal, ageless question of critical thinking skills applied to digital information."

I spent a semester last year researching news literacy in the digital age, mostly at Stony Brook. Overwhelmingly, I found that even fairly sophisticated students had no idea what to trust online. Instead, they tended to trust each other. Most reported getting their information through Facebook postings or Twitter feeds.

This hall-of-mirrors effect severely limits exposure to new ideas, reinforces biases, and isn't always reliable. Still, the array of information online is so bewildering, and so lacking in trusted guideposts, it's no wonder young people of all demographics stick to Fruit Ninja.

They don't need to learn what the escape key does. They need the skills to navigate the cluttered, often chaotic digital landscape; to check sources for accuracy and independence; to recognize a hoax; to learn the hidden tricks of marketers and deceivers; to feel confident behind the keyboard. Unfortunately, that can't be taught in a few workshops at the local Y.

Renée Loth writes for the Boston Globe.

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