By NICK CHILES
Researchers have found that the children of the poor spend more time than children of wealthier families using technology to play and waste time, rather than for constructive things. While we were spending all that time fretting about the digital divide in the 90’s, it turns out that as the divide began to close, a new divide was growing—the “wasting time” divide.
But as with everything else concerning children and childhood, what this divide is really about is children of the poor don’t get as much quality time with their parents—whether that time is spent preparing dinner in the kitchen, reading a book together, walking in the park, talking about the events of the day, or searching for crazy factoids on the computer about beetles.
It’s a well-documented fact that babies in poor families hear far fewer words during their development than children in wealthier families, resulting in a big gap in their language skills as they grow into school age. Studies have shown that children from poor families hear 30 million fewer words by the time they are four than do kids from middle-class families. That is an astounding gap, which on its face has nothing to do with money. In other words, parents who have less money don’t need more money to address this deficiency—they just need to talk to their kids more.
And apparently poor parents also need to more closely monitor what their kids are doing with technology, how much they are doing it, and whether they are getting anything out of it. I would venture to say that this is true of all parents, regardless of income level—we all need to pay more attention to what our kids are watching on television, what they are doing on the computer, how they are using their smartphones. But apparently the problem grows more acute as income and education levels fall.
The Kaiser Family Foundation published a study in 2010 that revealed children and teens whose parents don’t have a college degree spent 90 minutes more per day exposed to media than children from higher socioeconomic families—and shockingly the same gap was just 15 minutes in 1999. It grew from 15 minutes to 90 minutes in 11 years. The children with higher socioeconomic status have also seen a big increase in the amount of time they use technology for entertainment, but it wasn’t nearly as severe as poorer kids.
I am certainly sympathetic to the difficulty in getting kids to limit their technology time. Between my three kids, ages 9, 12 and 19, I count 1 smartphone, 4 iPods, 2 iPads, 1 laptop, 2 Nooks, 1 Xbox, 1 Wii, 1 Xbox Kinect…I’ve already grown tired of counting, and I know I’m missing a bunch of random little gadgets that beep and chortle from the couch or the backseat of the car. We are always fighting with them to limit their time on these devices, but sometimes it feels like trying to hold water in your hands. But I guess the fight is part of what we’re talking about—once you stop fighting and just let them have at it, you’ve lost the war and who knows what else you’ve lost. Luckily my kids all still have an interest in one decidedly low-tech gadget: books. So they won’t hesitate to put down a game and pick up a book. Well, they might need a little nudging.
But as we are entering the summer season, when those beeping, chortling, music-playing gadgets all beckon to our kids like a mirage in the summer desert, we have to keep up the fight, no matter how exhausting it gets. Set limits on how much time they can spend on the gadgets and in front of the television per day. Institute a family reading hour, when everyone picks up a book—or a Nook or Kindle—and reads. That includes the adults. Have conversation time at dinner, where everyone must talk about the best and the worst thing that happened to them during the day. Leave all the gadgets behind and go for a walk or a bike ride in the park. Go to the library and see who can find the most interesting book about rabbits or turtles or kangaroos.
I will be trying to do all of these and more with my family because I know that the fight against technology is a one-day-at-a-time battle and we can never give up. We can’t let the gadgets win. We just can’t.
If you have some other examples about how you beat back technology in your house, please share them with us.
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Mom. NY Times bestselling author. Pop culture ninja. Unapologetic lover of shoes, bacon and babies. Nice with the verbs. Founder of the top black parenting website, MyBrownBaby.